New backyard butterfly: Dainty Sulphur

Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

April’s showers have brought an explosion of new insect life to the garden. This morning I went out to check on the new plantings (record heat yesterday had made me concerned despite the relatively frequent recent rains) and discovered at least a half dozen Halloween Pennant dragonflies:

Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Three or four little blue dragonlets (yes, this one isn’t blue; they aren’t when they’re relatively fresh males or, if they’re females, they’re this color throughout life):

Little blue dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Little blue dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

And a new butterfly species for the yard. (I’m sure it’s been here every spring; this is just the first time I’ve been able to document it.) It’s a small yellow butterfly with a name that pretty much says the same thing: Dainty Sulphur.

Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

It’s the smallest North American pierid (the term for butterflies in this family, “whites and yellows” or “whites and sulphurs”). They feed on low-growing plants in the Asteraceae, which basically means they feed on weeds. Around here they like Spanish Needles and perhaps other herbs in the genus Bidens, so there’s very little reason to fear for the future of this weedeater. No one, and I mean no one, can get rid of Spanish Needles. (Glassberg, though, describes the status of this butterfly as “uncommon to abundant, decreasing immigrant northward and westward.”)

The taxonomic name is Nathalis iole, which translates roughly to “Nathalie’s purple.” I actually have no idea what the derivation of Nathalis is, so I speculate it honors someone Boisduval, who named the species, knew or fancied. The specific epithet, iole, though, comes from the Greek “ion” (ἰόν), which can mean either “violet,” for the faint purple flush that is sometimes present on this butterfly (the caterpillar actually has two purple stripes on it), or “ion,” the term Michael Faraday invented in 1834 to describe how something “goes” (from the Greek past participle of “to go,” which is another meaning of ἰόν) from one electrode to another through an aqueous medium. (Boisduval names the species in 1836, so “ion” might have been in the current, so to speak.)


“Attributes of Nathalis iole.” Butterflies and Moths of North America (website).

Glassberg, J. (2012). A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. Morristown, NJ: Sunstreak.

Minno, M. Butler, J., and Hall, D. (2005). Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and their Host Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

The dreaded Wikipedia for Faraday’s coining of the term “ion.”


Springtime flowers: Gumbo Limbo

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

You know it’s spring in south Florida when your Gumbo Limbo sticks—er, trees—start to flower:

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

You see, Gumbo Limbos are briefly deciduous—at the end of the cool part of the dry season, they drop their leaves, and for a brief while their branches are bare:

Bare branches of Gumbo Limbo during leaf exchange. Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

Bare branches of Gumbo Limbo during leaf exchange. Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

Nursery people call this “leaf exchange,” and some trees do it very quickly (my neighbor’s huge Pongam tree dropped two tons of leaves on my lawn in the space of three days, and three days later it had already leafed out again), while others do it more slowly.

My Gumbo Limbo does it fairly slowly, all the more so since the scale insects seem to adore it so. If you click on the photo of the flower above to look at the larger version, you can see there are some tiny little scaly jerks sucking the life out of this tender new growth. I’ve removed as many as I can with my big clumsy fingers, but getting them all is beyond my abilities. I’m just hoping to reduce the population enough that the tree’s new growth can establish itself quickly enough to be able to withstand the onslaught until the various scale predators can help me out.

I’ve already seen several lacewing eggs on the tree, strategically located close to the emerging new growth; with luck these voracious larvae, which feed on scale, will help me stem the tide:

Green lacewing eggs on Gumbo Limbo. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

Green lacewing eggs on Gumbo Limbo. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

Green lacewings are interesting little beasts. As their name implies, they are delicate, lacelike creatures that do nothing but good in the garden:

The adults are usually predators of other insects, but a few species feed only on pollen. The larvae, on the other hand, are excellent predators on all kinds of small soft-bodied garden pests (aphids, scale, and the like), which is why lacewings are one of the more frequently used biological pest control species. Here’s a picture of the “trashbug” from a few years ago:

If you’re interested in reading more about green lacewings, here is an excellent blog post by Carol Leffler over in Polk County, writing for the Florida-Friendly Landscaping program. Some highlights:

  • Newly emerged lacewing adults undertake miles-long nighttime dispersal flights even when there’s suitable habitat where they were born. (Adaptation for species/habitat diversity)
  • A single lacewing larva can consume up to 200 aphids or eggs per week. (No wonder these insects are sold as pest control despite their habit of dispersal upon reaching adulthood)
  • Lacewings are relatively long-lived insects (they can live for several months, rather than the weeks or days of butterflies, flies, and other flying insects).

You go, little guys!

Dragonflies and damselflies returning to the yard

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

After a dry beginning to March (and no rain since then, but at least the heat’s moderated a bit for the past few days), the odonates have started returning to the yard, just in time for the equinox!

One or two of them run into mishaps:

Watch where you fly! Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) served up for breakfast to a spiny-backed orb weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis). Boca Raton, FL, March 18, 2015.

Watch where you fly! Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) served up for breakfast to a spiny-backed orb weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis). Boca Raton, FL, March 18, 2015.

but by and large they are still the most formidable airborne insect predators out there. Most of them sprint to safety as I approach, although the Blue Dasher is often more docile,

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

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

as is a chilly Eastern Pondhawk in the early morning:

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

The smaller and daintier damselflies are generally more approachable with a camera even after the sun has warmed them up a little; after the “chill” of the morning burns off, most of my dragonflies sprint away as I approach. Damselflies, on the other hand, sit still so you can sneak up on them. And, if you look at the bottom of the photo below, other creatures have little difficulty approaching as well.

Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Since I didn’t notice the spider until after I’d come inside to view the photos on the screen, I have no idea what kind it is. Presumably a flower spider of some sort; it’s quite small, given that the damselfly is no colossus itself.

Happy first day of spring!

Sweat bees in the yard

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi) "face." Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Sweat bees are fairly common. We get two kinds here in my yard, neither of which are common enough to have common names, but which I see fairly frequently: Agapostemon splendens and Halictus poeyi. The “splendid” green Agapostemon moves very quickly; a good shot of it is fairly rare. But H. poeyi is a bit more sedate, allowing for some decent portraits. Here are a few.

From a post in 2012:

From, where I posted the pic to confirm the ID this fall:

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

And from this breezy morning, a rather cooperative individual letting me get the traditional profile shot and a “face shot”:

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi). Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi). Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi) "face." Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi) “face.” Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Hope you don’t mind sweating a little bit in the yard!

New backyard bug: Asian mango flower beetle

Asian mango flower beetle (Protaetia fusca). Boca Raton, FL, December 17, 2014.

December has been chilly here; the longest stretch of cold nights I can remember, punctuated by lovely cool and ever-so-slightly-warm by the afternoon days. After nearly fifteen years here, I feel like I’m finally getting my money’s worth out of living in the Sunshine State.

The cool weather, though, has slowed the flowering in my yard, and with the smaller nectar and pollen crop that’s available in these shorter days, I’ve seen fewer insects, and with fewer insects, there have been fewer birds around. I still see the wintering palm warblers, and now and then the kestrel shows back up on the wires, but few butterflies, apart from the ever-present Zebra Heliconian and Cloudless Sulphur, are making themselves known.

And the odonates (damsel- and dragonflies) almost seem to have disappeared. It wasn’t until the 17th that I saw any kind of dragonfly this month, and I only caught the briefest of glimpses so I have no idea what species it was. Later that same day I found a lone Citrine Forktail out in one of the many sunflower beds around the house. And that’s all, at least now, a few days before the solstice and a full week before Christmas.

However, I did find and photograph what I at first took for our native flower beetle, Euphoria sepulcralis, which seems to occur here regularly in December. I was alerted to its presence while I was inspecting the flower beds for more damselflies by the loudest buzzing you can imagine. For example, flies buzz at, let’s say a three on a ten-point scale. A mosquito’s whine would be a one. A honeybee might be a four, and the loud megachilid bees would be a five or a six, depending on species. But the flower beetles probably rate a seven or eight. They are frighteningly loud, at least when you’re in a flowerbed with lots of potentially stinging insects nearby. (In the four years I’ve been here, I’ve yet to be stung by any of the bees or wasps, or bitten by any of the ants or spiders. Still, no one likes to be stung or bitten, and it’s still kinda scary!)

So when I heard this loud, loud buzz, and saw a flower beetle, I took a few rudimentary shots just to document the presence of a known species to begin rebuilding my sighting matrix. (As you’ll recall, my recent computer crash has destroyed two full years of data, including over 10,000 photographs that I’d just finished tagging and labeling to help build my yearly sighting matrix. Sigh.)

Asian mango flower beetle (Protaetia fusca). Boca Raton, FL, December 17, 2014.

Asian mango flower beetle (Protaetia fusca). Boca Raton, FL, December 17, 2014.

On closer inspection of the photographs, though, it turns out that the loud buzzing flower beetle that I’d assumed to be E. sepulcralis was its imported cousin instead, Protaetia fusca, the Asian mango flower beetle. Even though I’d read the “featured creature” page I linked to over two years ago, at the time I hadn’t even noticed the comparison of the native and non-native scarabs that I now find so interesting.

Turns out that these little guys, while looking somewhat alike to the presbyopic naturalist writing these pages, to the taxonomic entomologist writing them up back in 2006, they are rather distinct:

Both species are typical of the scarab subfamily Cetoniinae, being somewhat flattened dorsally, the head barely visible from above. Both dorsally have variable patterns of scales, some of which can be rubbed off, contributing to many synonyms being created for E. sepulcralis. They can be recognized readily by the accompanying habitus illustrations (Fig. 1-2 ). In addition, the dorsal surface of P. fusca is matte and somewhat velvety; that of E. sepulcralis is shiny. Each elytron of P. fusca terminates in a spine at the sutural apex (Fig. 4), but E. sepulcralis has no such spine (Fig. 5). The pattern formed by the pygidium and elytral apices is composed of scales and is similar but distinct (Fig. 6, P. fusca; 7, E. sepulcralis), both appearing to mimic the head of a bee. Because this is the part exposed while beetles are headlong into a flower, it could serve as a deterrent for a predator.

I rarely read block quotes, so I’ll point out what I find interesting from the description above: these beetle’s butts imitate the head of a bee! Here’s the picture from that article that “proves” it:

Elytral apices of non-native (left) and native (right) flower beetles in Florida. Looks like a bee's head to me, all right! Photo from Woodruff, 2006.

Elytral apices of non-native (left) and native (right) flower beetles in Florida. Looks like a bee’s head to me, all right! Photo from Woodruff, 2006.

Whether you’re convinced or not that this beetle’s behind resembles the front end of a bee, it’s kind of neat, right? What do you see in your flowerbeds?

I’m not sure of the etymology of this species’ taxonomic name; aetio is the Greek root of “cause” or “responsibility” (think “etiology”); fusca comes from fuscus, “dusky,” “dark.” Perhaps a reference to the color of the beetle, or to the color of the flowers it damages while feeding?


Thomas, M. 2007. Euphoria sepulcralis. DPI Entomology Circular 386, updated for Featured Creatures web article at UF’s website.

Woodruff, R. 2006.  The Asian mango flower beetle, Protaetia fusca (Herbst), and Euphoria sepulcralis (Fabricius) in Florida and the West Indies (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Cetoniinae). Insects Mundi 20(3-4):227–232. Available online at Digital Commons.


New backyard butterfly: Great Southern White

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) nectaring on Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella). Merritt Island, FL, January 12, 2008.

I’ve been noticing some large, white butterflies in the front yard throughout the month of May; they’ve been a bit hard to photograph with the constant wind and their habit of flying off at top speed when I approach with a camera, so I’m digging into my photo files and showing this version from a January, 2008 trip to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) nectaring on Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella). Merritt Island, FL, January 12, 2008.

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) nectaring on Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella). Merritt Island, FL, January 12, 2008.

Now back to Boca: this June, for the first time ever, I  noticed some butterfly eggs on my limber caper (Capparis flexuosa). I was surprised, because I wasn’t aware that these plants, with their incredible showy flowers, were butterfly host plants. The eggs I saw were small (as butterfly eggs are), slender, yellow, and laid out in attractive little bunches on the leaves.

Most butterfly eggs are laid on the bottom of the leaf surface, to protect the developing larva from the sun and, I don’t know, lazy predators who don’t know how to cruise the underside of a leaf? But what caught my eye this fine morning was a cute little bunch of eggs on the top surface of a tender young leaf:

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) eggs. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) eggs. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

The yellow-and-white pattern was rather striking. It turns out that the yellow was made up of still-occupied eggs, and the white was just the reflection through the translucent remains of some “hatched-out” eggs (eclosed, in technical parlance). These eggs were so small that I really had no idea what I was looking at until I brought the camera inside and looked at the photos on the computer screen. It was only then that I discovered that they were butterfly eggs and not, as I’d first suspected, stink bug eggs, which are also laid in geometric patterns.

Once I found out they were caterpillar eggs, I needed to figure out what species they might be. That part was easy: just consult Marc Minno’s book on Florida butterfly caterpillars and see which butterflies use Limber Caper as a host plant. Turns out there are only two, Florida White and Great Southern White. And the Florida White’s eggs are white, not yellow. Case closed!

But, I reasoned, since in this group there were some occupied eggs and some eclosed eggs, there must have been some caterpillars on this here plant that I missed when I was photographing the eggs. So I went back outside to try to find them. And sure enough, I found a whole little community of tiny caterpillars doing their thing:

A whole passel o caterpillars (Ascia monusta, Great Southern White). Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

A whole passel o’ caterpillars (Ascia monusta, Great Southern White). Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

They appeared to be busily occupied constructing a little shelter for themselves out of silk, presumably to protect themselves from the numerous ants, lacewings, and other predators in the well-tended garden. (I noticed several lacewing eggs on other parts of this bush.)

The caterpillars are quite interesting, with numerous “spikes” (setae), most of which seem to be growing out of the numerous small black sp0ts that adorn the caterpillar’s back. It’s green and yellow, at least this early in life (first instar); Minno describes the body of later instars as “gray with yellow stripes.” Apparently the back of the caterpillar has short tails, but I’ve been unable to discern any in the photos I’ve taken so far. Also, it seems that the caterpillars—which right now appear to be quite social, feeding and hanging out  together—start to disperse as they mature, rather like human children.

Here’s a solo shot:

Ascia monusta (Great Southern White) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

Ascia monusta (Great Southern White) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

I’m not quite sure what the droplets on the end of their hairs might be; there was no rain this morning and I hadn’t even watered the plants as I often do early in the rainy season when, as now, we’ve been without rain for a few days. I’ve posted a question on my go-to site for insect identifications,, and will update this post if I hear anything back.

If you’re interested in learning more about these butterflies, the Miami Blue chapter of the North American Butterfly Association has a nice write-up on their website.


Minno, M., J. Butler, & D. Hall. (2005). Florida butterfly caterpillars and their host plants. Gainesville, FL: U of Florida P.

New backyard bird: Downy Woodpecker, or why native plants love birds (and vice versa)

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescent with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

From time to time the native plants in my yard, which I do my best to foster, suffer from an overabundance of a certain tiny insect: scale. These insects aren’t scary to most people—they don’t bite, they don’t fly up and startle you, they don’t even move after they hunker down in their chosen spot to feed. But they are rather scary to the plants they parasitize. They latch onto a growing stem, use their piercing sucking mouthparts to penetrate the thin exterior walls, and suck up the vital juices that are supposed to be circulating through the plant and helping it grow. Soft-bodied scale also excrete (yes, excrete, not secrete) honeydew, which, in enough quantity, enables the fungus called sooty mold to grow on the plant. Sooty mold can cover the entire leaf surface, interfering with photosynthesis. So not only do the scale insects steal the plant’s sap (literally sapping its energy), they also create an environment in which other plant pests can interfere with other important plant functions.

You’d think that scale insects would be pretty easy to defeat—after all, they can’t move or sting, and they have no particular defenses at all apart from a waxy covering that prevents casual inspectors from noticing that they exist. Other insects, such as lacewing and lady beetle larvae, like to eat these little guys whenever they find them. But their honeydew buys them some serious protectors: ants. The sweet, nutritious by-product of their all-plant-juice diet is beloved by these social insects. Ant colonies will send out “cowboys” to tend the herd and to bring back their liquid excrement (“milk,” if you will) to the nest. That’s right, ants are scale and aphid ranchers.

I’ve spent the last few weeks out in the garden trying my best to remove these scale insects without damaging the plants, but it’s tough sledding. There are dozens of insects per growing stem, and most of the shrubs and trees in my yard have dozens upon dozens of growing stems. Stripping the bugs off and squishing them makes your fingers sticky and smelly, and there’s always the risk of pinching off the stem or leaf of the plant when you’re just trying to scrape off the sticky gooey bug that’s attacking it.

There are about 175 armored species of this pest in Florida, and 60 “soft” scale species. The biology of the species goes like this, according to the UF/IFAS web page about them:

The armored scale life cycle is generalized as follows. The eggs are laid underneath the waxy covering and hatch over a period of one to three weeks. The newly hatched scales (called crawlers) move about over the plant until they locate succulent new growth. They insert their piercing-sucking mouthparts into the plant and begin feeding. Female scales lose their legs and antennae during the first molt. They molt a second time before reaching maturity and do not pupate. The cast skins (exuviae) are incorporated in the scale cover. Male scales go through two additional molts and pupate underneath the wax. Adult males are tiny two-winged, gnat-likeinsects without mouthparts. In some armored scales the adult stage is reached in six weeks, and there are several generations per year.

 In the females of the soft scales the antennae and legs are not lost, but are reduced to such an extent that though the adults can move about somewhat they seldom do. The wax when secreted, usually forms a sac at the rear end of the body enclosing the eggs, and the scale on the back of the insect becomes much thickened, forming a thick fluffy mass. The life cycle is similar to the armored scales except some soft scales require one year to reach maturity.

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you really can get help from mother nature, in the good old-fashioned food chain sense. And that’s what happened the other day. I was soaking my feet in the pool while making sure my three-year-old stayed in his floatie—he can “swim” really fast in that plastic ring, but he tends to sink if he’s not using it, which is a Bad Thing—when I heard some fast-paced, high-pitched bird calls somewhere nearby. Intrigued, I started checking things out when I discovered to my great astonishment and delight that a pair of Downy Woodpeckers were gleaning insects from the firebushes that were most heavily infested with scale.

Upon further inspection it turned out that this wasn’t a “pair” of woodpeckers so much as it was a parent and a young bird. And what was that dad (male downies have a red patch on the nape of the neck; female birds are white-headed) stuffing down baby bird’s gullet to shut it up? You guessed it: a beak full of scale!

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

In case it’s hard to see in that shot, here’s a closer look:

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescent with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

How’s that for service? I get to see wildlife in action, and that action consists of helping me out in my gardening endeavors! While it’s too soon for the plants to have regained their showy appearance after their battle with the sap-sucking, soot-making, honeydew cows, it’s encouraging to see that garden ecology sometimes does work.

Here are a few more shots of the birds doing their thing; I tried to stay inconspicuous for fear of frightening them off, but they didn’t seem to mind my being about 20 feet away, hiding behind the kids’ plastic slide and firing away with my zoom lens:

Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014

Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014


Dad (bottom) shows scale on outside of beak; baby (top) displays a mouth full of bugs. Yum!

The next morning as I was out, sans camera, inspecting the handiwork (beakywork?) of these fine insect control service technicians, the same pair flew right up into the tree next to those firebushes and began their chipping/begging act again. You can bet I high-tailed it out of there, in hopes that they’d set about polishing off the bugs that survived the previous night’s work.

As it turns out, the woodpeckers appear to be husbanding their food supply rather than eradicating my pest problem, so I still have a lot of bug squishing to do. Oh, well. It’s fun having the birds in the yard, and if I’m out there squishing the scale, at least I’m out and about with a chance to see more urban wildlife!

When wasps dance

Polistes_major_dance_20121108 1

Earlier this week I witnessed some insect behavior with which I was previously unfamiliar. (To be fair, I am unfamiliar with, to make a conservative estimate, most insect behavior.) A pair of wasps of the species Polistes major were, to put it simply, crowding each other on our deck box. Sometimes they would face each other, sometimes near, sometimes a bit farther apart. It lasted for hours. I discovered them around 8 a.m. while playing outside with the boys; it was still going on shortly before noon. Right around noon, and I’m not sure exactly when, one of the wasps disappeared. Here’s a little photo gallery of the incident.


Picture 1 of 8

Polistes major wasps. Boca Raton, FL. November 8, 2012. 8:10 a.m.

This was no high-speed waggle dance like you’ve heard about in a honeybee hive; this was a good old-fashioned slow-motion staredown. For the most part it looked like one wasp was clearly dominant over the other; in one of the shots you can see the submissive wasp tucking her head into the surface of the deck box while the dominant one is crawling over her:

Polistes major dominance display. The wasp on the left appears to be submitting to the wasp on the right. Boca Raton, FL. November 8, 2012.

Of course, to the human eye, particularly an untrained one like mine, there’s no way to tell why the wasp on the left is submitting to the wasp on the right; they appear almost identical to me. But the wasps appear to have sorted out, even if it took a little while.

Presumably the wasp that remains was the victor; I’ve only seen one wasp at a time since noon on Thursday. The one thing that worries me is that the most frequent sighting site is inside my deck box, which is where we store our pool and back yard toys. I don’t want an enraged wasp colony in there when the kids open the box to take out a pool noodle, so I’m going to have to keep a close eye on this situation.

Cold spells=insect close-ups


The first few days of fall in Florida often bring cold (well, cool) fronts to the region. This year we’re already on our second or third round of long-sleeve days, so I thought this might be a good time to show off what I’ve been able to capture of the cold-slowed insect fauna.

Here’s a photo from last week; it’s the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with the messed-up wing from the front porch. The Blue Dasher is a member of a monotypic group (which just means that, like Tigger, the wonderful thing about the Blue Dasher is it’s the only one of its kind) in the skimmer family (Libellulidae). Despite its lack of close cousins, it’s one of the most widespread and common dragonflies in North America. Back in 2010, it was the most commonly submitted record at Odonata Central, with 368 records (2.3% of the total). [Note: A search of that site today reveals that there are now 1602 records of this species on the site, but it’s been outstripped in popularity by the previous number 2 species, Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), with 1680 records as of today.]

Our next dragonfly shot is from this morning, and it’s another member of the Libellulidae family. I’m not sure of the species, although I suspect a very young female Roseate or Bar-winged Skimmer. In any case, this individual was perched on the screen of the kitchen window in fairly deep shade, which I suspect is why she was so patient with the camera for so long. Of course, the instant I got to the right distance and camera angle after dozens of so-so shots, I had time for only one image before she decided she’d had enough and repaired to a nearby bush to sulk:

But, at least I got the shot.

In both photos, the most prominent feature is, of course, the pair of compound eyes. But if you can tear your eyes away from those multifaceted jewels, you can see plenty of other interesting things. For example, both of these little ladies look like they could use a shave; in these extreme close-ups, the sensory hairs on their frons (the biggest area of the “face”) stand out in, if not razor-sharp relief (technically they’re a bit blurry because the depth of field even at these large ƒ-stops is minuscule), at least somewhat sharp detail.

You can also see the two small antennae. Dragonflies are primarily visual, rather than tactile, creatures, so their antennae are greatly reduced. In fact, the great dragonfly biologist Tillyard (1917), writes of having surgically removed the antennae from dozens of species and finding no observable loss of function in any of them: “In no single instance did the operation affect the insect in the least.” (He also removed the heads of dragonflies and discovered that the bodies live for up to two days longer, “while the wings vibrate vigorously whenever the thorax is touched.”) Later researchers have speculated that the main function of the antennae in odonata is to measure wind speed and perhaps direction.

Situated very near the antennae are two of the three simple eyes, or ocelli. They look like globs of liquid in these photos, but they are actually light-sensitive structures made of chitin (like every other insect structure). There are always three, but in none of my images have I been able to capture all three. Here, in a rotated and isolated detail from a fabulous Wikipedia image, are the three ocelli of Aeshna cyanea. The prominent one is the median ocellus; the other two are much harder to see, but if you look up and to the middle at about 45° from the base of the antennae you should be able to make them out:

Aeshna cyanea face, showing ocelli. Close-up of image from Wikipedia.

According to Tillyard again, the median ocellus used to be a pair of ocelli that have merged. Recall that the purpose of ocelli seems to be to detect light levels, rather than shapes or movement, while the ommatidia (facets) of the compound eye combine to form images of shapes as far away as 2 meters, while they can detect motion up to 20 m (or more) away.

Just as a reminder, the ocelli of other insect species are often relatively easy to make out, provided you’re brave enough to get close enough to make them out:

This Polistes major wasp was involved in a complicated social interaction with another member of its species; it lasted all morning long. I’m still not sure whether there was some sort of dominance being tested, or sibling rivalry being enacted, or what, but these two wasps were very close to each other for a very long time:. More on this in the next post.


Paulson, D. 2011. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Tillyard, R. J. 1917. Biology of Dragonflies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.


When dragonflies don’t…


fly, that is.

This morning when Eric and I went outside to plant some basil (yes, November is the start of herb-growing season here in south Florida), we noticed a dragonfly on the wall of the house that wasn’t moving very much. One of its wings was at an odd angle:

On closer inspection, it looked like this Blue Dasher (known to odonate enthusiasts as Pachydiplax longipennis) had sustained some kind of damage to the thorax; perhaps the little gal flew into a window or something:

Here’s a detail of that same shot:

The ichor on the thorax is what makes me think this is injury, rather than simply a problem that occurred during emergence. Most emergence problems result in a dragonfly that can’t fly at all, not one that has a perfectly fine-looking wing held at the wrong angle.

And as I’ve read, dragonflies can fly with only three wings. And this young lady proved it: after remaining patient through many close-ups for me, this little lady flew off and wasn’t seen again. But not before giving me the best photo of a dragonfly face I’ve gotten to date:

Hope you find her as beautiful as I do!


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