Friday, June 20, 2014

Winter's Coming

Giant Blue-eyed Grasshopper awaiting winter in the basil
In that very Australian way of taking the sun for granted, Winter has been officially here since the 1st of June and chilly nights started soon after. In the upside-down Home Bug Garden in Alberta, today is a day of mixed emotions: summer starts, but then the days start getting shorter in their inevitable slide towards the next winter. Weather is more lag than slave to the calendar and the upside-down North American tradition of using the solstices and equinoxes to begin seasons is an interesting tradition, but not especially logical. We still celebrate today in the Pie Creek Home Bug Garden. The 21st of June 2014 at 8:51 PM AEST will be the official Winter Solstice and the time at which the days start getting longer instead of shorter. Today will be the shortest day of 2014: sunrise 6:36 AM and sunset 5:06 PM.
Four Fruit-piercing Moths (Eudocima phalonia) ruining a mandarin
That means long nights. By the time the Solstice arrives it will have been dark for almost 4 hours with Scorpio overhead along with the Southern Cross, Milky Way and myriad other stars. Well, if it isn't cloudy. If it is, then it will be time to go moth hunting. The largest around at the moment are the beautiful but noxious fruit-piercing moths (Eudocima spp.): almost as large and even more annoying than House Sparrows (none of the latter here, thankfully).
Another Fruit-piercing Moth Eudocima materna
Mothing at the black light has not been particularly good. Most of the moths are small and seemingly impossible to identify, except for one small and all too numerous member of the leaf-mining and tying family Gelechiidae: Dichomeris capnites. This small (1 cm long) moth swarms the black light, crashes into the camera, and infiltrates the house.
Carpet moth (Scioglyptis cf lyciaria) & 4 party pooping Dichomeris capnites
Although small, this moth is easy to identify because of its aggregative desire: it forms giant clusters (up to 20 m in length have been reported) on vegetation of many thousands or perhaps millions of moths. Each tries to huddle together as close as possible (head to bum, side to side) so that the adorned leaves look as if they were coated in plate chain-mail.
Daytime aggregation of the Autumn Cluster Moth Dichomeris capnites
Appropriately, these moths have attracted the common name of Autumn Cluster Moth, although the clusters do persist into winter. The species name is also appropriate; 'capn+ites' from the ancient Greek words for 'smoke + like'. When disturbed, day or night, the resulting fluster is very much like dense smoke.
Native Bee (Tetragonula cf carbonaria) & Monarch share the basil
So that's the Home Bug Garden in Winter. A time of bugs big and small. Some good, some bad, most indifferent. The garden is bursting with salad greens, basil and assorted brassicas. I suppose I should make some pesto before a frost gets the basil.
A pair of Tawny Frogmouths snooze away a short winter day.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Autumn in the New Home Bug Garden

Striated Pardalote and blue skies
It is autumn in the Mary River Valley in SE Queensland, a time of cold nights and clear, blue days. Daytime highs are rather similar to Edmonton in the summer, 20-25 C are common, but nights chill down to the single digits. Last night it was 5 C and I wished I had packed a warm jumper. Everything is green and lush from the rains, too long delayed but copious when they began to fall, and the tanks are full to overflowing.
Don's Pond full after the summer rains
Dollar Birds, Forest Kingfishers, Channel-billed Cuckoos and a few other birds have moved away for the winter, but others have moved down from the mountains to winter in the garden. Some butterflies migrate through too. In March and April the Blue Tigers were purposely winging their ways north.
Blue Tiger Tirumala hamata (WS Macleay, 1826)
More recently an Australian Painted Lady appeared looking brand new and happy. A migrant from down south or the last of the summer's generation?
Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi (McCoy, 1868)
From all the birds and the bees busily going about their business you'd hardly know that winter was coming, but winter here tends to be kind.
Native bee (Lipotriches sp.)
Winter is a good time for gardens too, but I hope not as good for the garden pests as the summer was. My fond hopes of a bumper crop of tomatillos fell afoul of the 3-lined Potato Beetle (Lema cf trivittata Say 1824), a thoroughly obnoxious pest.
A couple of 3-lined Potato Beetles plotting the destruction of the garden.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Big Wig in the Moth World: Emperor Moth

Emperor Moth Syntherata sp.
The rains continue to scuttle-by the Gympie Region, so the rainy season so far has been a bust. But outside the relic rainforest regions, the climates in Australia always tend towards drought and flood with years of 'normal' rainfall not all that normal. The last few years have been flood in southeast Queensland, so drought is to be expected sooner or later. Last night, though, it looked like relief was in sight. A heavy cloud cover blew in, the moon disappeared, the humidity rose, and it looked perfect mothing weather until the rains came. The mothing was quite good, but the rains never came.
Underside of "Empress" Moth
Most of the moths were still on the small-size, but a handful of the medium-sized fluttered in and two on the large end of the spectrum: an as yet unidentified underwing and this striking Giant Silk Moth (Saturniidae). She is a bit battered, but still rather majestic with a wingspread of 12cm or so. She is a member of the genus Syntherata, either S.  janetta (White, 1843) or the more recently described S. escarlata Lane, Edwards & Naumann, 2010.  Apparently, the females are highly variable and the new species is difficult to separate from the old.
A pair of mystery moths of the micro and macro persuasions
So, although the garden is bone dry, I now have a handful of pictures of mostly attractive and interesting moths to try to identify and learn about. The most difficult are the so-called micro-moths:  a large number of families of small to tiny moths. Identifying them usually requires pinning with the wings spread and dissection of the genitalia. That is too barbaric for me (aka it's too much work), so I will putter around with the more accessible macro-moths. The (~4cm long) macro-moth above maybe in the family Cossidae, but if so it is one of the smaller members of the family that includes the Witchity Grubs. Unknown moths are always more fun, at least up to a point: they are a great excuse to while away the hours looking at pictures of one of life's most colourful groups of animals. 

Lane DA, Edwards, E.D.; Naumann, S. 2010. A revision of the genus Syntherata Maassen, 1873 (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae) within Australia, with the description of three new species, and description of their life histories. European Entomologist  3(1): 1-41.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Naturalist observes that Big Bugs do have Smaller Bugs to bite'm

Don's Pond, a hothouse of insect lust and gluttony

I had an Ad infinitum* afternoon yesterday on an idyllic island in the middle of a water lilly-covered pond.

The entertainment came from watching some very large parasitic wasps misbehaving.

Literally it was lust in the dust as a swarm of several dozen males pounced and pursued females emerging from burrows in the ground.

Radumeris tasmaniensis (Saussure, 1855) belongs to the Scoliidae and is rather large – females to 30 mm long. They have the interesting habit of burrowing in the ground up to a metre or more in search of beetle grubs that they paralyze with their sting. An egg is deposited and the wasp grub that hatches from it proceeds to devour the beetle grub alive.

Lust-crazed male wasp pursues uninterested female
Since these beetle grubs are often pests (e.g. cane grubs), the wasps are considered ‘good insects’. The males, however, are pretty bogan, lust-crazed and don't know how to take no for an answer. I was not alone in my purving, though. Also absorbed by all the drama was a flight of very large and hairy bee flies (Bombyliidae).
Bee fly in flight
Ligyra satyrus (Fabricius, 1775) is a very large (53 mm wingspan) bee fly. The type specimens were collected by Joseph Banks during the Endeavour voyage and it was one of the first Australian insect species described. Its grubs somehow find their way deep into the ground where they eat the wasp grubs that are eating the cane grubs.
Ligyra satyrus (Fabricius, 1775) in person
*"So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum."
J. Swift (1733) On Poetry: A Rhapsody

Berry JA, Osten T & Emberson R. 2001. Radumeris tasmanniensis (Saussure, 1855), the first record of a scoliid wasp from New Zealand (Hymenoptera, Scoliidae, Campsomerini). Entomophauna 22(4): 41-48.

Yeates DK, Logan D & Lambkin C. 1999. Immature stages of the bee fly Ligyra satyrus (F.) (Diptera: Bombyliidae): A hyperparasitoid of canegrubs (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae). Australian Journal of Entomology 38: 300–30.