Monday, July 18, 2011

Some Interesting Insects

With over 85,000+ species in the United States, insects make up a huge portion of our biodiversity. Among these species, there are several that are easily observed by the casual naturalist, including the Monarch, a bumblebee, or a lady beetle. However, there is an entire world of insects right here with us that go undetected, either because the are small, nondescript, or rare. However, sometimes these unnoticed species are incredible beautiful, or perhaps they have an interesting story. Here are a few examples that I have found recently:

After seriously becoming interested in moths earlier this summer, I quickly learned about this small moth. This tiny species is an abundant denizen of the fern understory in the woods around my house, as well as a frequent visitor to my porch light. Named for the two rings visible on the basal areas of the forewings, the Hollow-spotted Blepharomastix (Blepharomastix ranalis), has one of the coolest genus names of any of the moths I've encountered so far.

The Imported Long-horned Weevil (Calomycterus setarius) is another insect that I frequently find on my porch. A small group of these guys can often be found blending into the wall. This beetle is only about 3mm long, so it can be difficult to find against wood or another tan or brown surface. This species is particularly interesting, as it can perform parthenogenetic reproduction, in which the female can produce offspring without fertilization by a male. This process allows this soybean pest to reproduce very rapidly.

Here's another non-native weevil. I caught this gorgeous Asiatic Oak Weevil (Cyrtepistomus castaneus) while sweeping branches of tall oaks. This species, like the previous species, can perform parthenogenesis, which allows it to spread rapidly after its introduction to this country.

Most people would hardly notice this insect-eaten White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) leaf, but to me, this particular piece of patterned foliage tells a story. Those whitish lines are the result of the larval from of Liriomyza eupatoriella, a leaf-miner fly. The fly larva eats the inside of the leaf between the upper and lower epidermal layers of the leaf, leaving these visible squiggly lines.

This Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) leaf also shows the characteristic squiggly lines of an insect larva. Unlike in the previous photo, this damage was caused by a caterpillar of the Ectoedemia nyssaefoliella moth.

While attempting to photograph an ant, I noticed a small, brown insect sitting next to me. As I took a closer look, I realized that the tiny insect was an extremely small grasshopper! At only 6mm, this nymphal Crested Pygmy Grasshopper (Nomotettix cristatus) is one of the smallest grasshoppers around. Due to its size and preference to stay low to the ground, this species is rarely detected. Unfortunately, this elusiveness also means that there is very little information published about this unique and fascinating species.

The final insect I'd like to share is a truly bizarre creature. When I first saw a group of these insects flying around a sweet birch tree, I thought they were little pieces of fluff from the nearby milkweed seed pods. This flying piece of lint is actually an aphid in the family Calaphidinae, the birch aphids. Keep an eye out for these unique critters the next time you pass through the forest.

I'd also like to mention a project I've been working on for a little bit. This project is a dichotomous key to the grass skippers of Pennsylvania. You can find the key here. After keying out to species, if you click on the species name, you will be directed to a page with more information about the species.

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