What is pink, clumpy and found in a birdfeeder?

A couple of weeks ago, one of our county extension offices sent an email connecting me with somebody with an amusing insect story from her backyard. Susan Stone-Douglas was the person with the story. She is kind enough to write her part of the story for this blog:

“On April 17, 2012 I took my birdfeeder down to fill it and found this cocoon-like matter under the lid.  I thought it was a spider nest.  Being allergic to spider bites I wasn’t thrilled.  But at the same time I was totally fascinated by the beauty and symmetry of what Mother Nature produces. 


I first emailed my picture to my friend Shari Kosel and she forwarded it to her sister in New Mexico, whose 10 year old son, Reiney Houfek, loves bugs of any kind.  Reiney told Shari it wasn’t a spider nest it was a clump of moth eggs.

Meanwhile I had Googled the Extension Service and emailed my picture to them at SDSU and also my friend Dr. Holly Downing, an entomologist at BHSU.  The entomologist’s from both colleges confirmed our budding 10 year old entomologist was correct and went on to identify the moth.  Holly told me the black dot in the center of each egg told her they had already hatched, which, of course, proved true.  I never did get to see what came out of the cocoon.  I’m just happy it wasn’t spiders.

I also posted my picture on Facebook and an amazing conversation resulted.”

An amusing story indeed! It has all sorts of interesting little parts: mysterious cocoon-like thing in a bird feeder, a 10 year-old budding entomologist and a testimony of Facebook power to create conversations. What more can you want from a story?

The egg clump found in Sue’s bird feeder is indeed a moth egg cluster. Meal moths in particular are fond of laying their eggs in any location with accumulation of bird feeds with a long-term view that the hatching larvae can use the bird feed as food source later. Meal moths do not constitute a problem outdoors. They shouldn’t harm the bird and their populations do not usually become too big. They can become a problem indoors when they do get in. Meal moth larvae tend to be found in stored grains and their derivative products (e.g. flour, pet food, etc.). Keeping the stored grains in well lidded containers, not keeping them for too long and general sanitation of the storage area are good practices to keep meal moths away.

Again, thanks to Sue for sharing her story and kudos for Reiney Houfek for the spot-on id of the moth eggs!


When Life Gives You Plastic, Lay Eggs!

My previous department head pulled this piece off of the internet a couple days ago and I thought that I would share this with all of you…

It’s always amazing to see how insects can take advantage of the situations that humans put them into.  Clearly no one was expecting to find anything taking advantage of this awful situation.  But, low and behold, the sea skater (Halobates sericeus) is using this garbage to build up its numbers.  This article is just one more piece of evidence that insects will always be far more adaptable to their surroundings than even the most technologically advanced human.

Go bugs!



I’ve gotten many questions regarding the crazy amounts of moths that people are seeing right now.  Questions such as:

Why are they here?

Are they doing damage?

Is this a sign of things to come this summer?

Well, to begin, these moths belong to a group of moths called “Miller” moths.  This a generic name given to a bunch of mottled brown moths, but out west it commonly refers to the adult stage of the army cutworm.  In normal winters South Dakota and surrounding states experience cold enough temperatures that many of the adults are killed before spring.  However, with such a mild winter, many of the adults were able to survive and are now in the process of moving westward towards the Rocky Mountains.

The adult army cutworm doesn’t cause any damage and is more of a nuissance than anything.  They are attracked to porch lights so trying to reduce the amount of external lighting around your home should reduce this problem.  But, they can cause more serious problems for drivers where populations get too large…


Do these adult populations mean problems for the summer?  To be honest, it’s too hard to tell…  I’m not particularly concerned with their presence this early in the season.  The larvae are what we worry about and as long as we get moisture in the spring or fall, they will get drowned out and won’t be much to worry about again.

But before I end this post… 

Quick Question!  Does anyone know the best natural predator of the army cutworm?




Answer!  Grizzly bears!  Once the army cutworms migrate to the Rockies for the summer (they don’t like the heat and head to the mountains for the cooler temperatures and plentiful flowers to feed on) the grizzly bears also migrate further into the mountains to feed upon the cutworms.  I watched a documentary that mentioned that individual grizzly bears will feed on over 10,000 moths before the cutworms migrate back east!  Think of these moths as little energy packed vitamins…  The documentary also showed grizzly bears fighting over areas that had more moths than others.


This week our hats are tipped in honor of a particularly unique bug, the giant water bug (Lethocerus americanus)!  Giant water bugs are Hemipterans which belong to the insect family Belostomatidae (about 100 species total).  They can be found across the planet in South America, Australia, Asia, and are the largest insect found in North America.   Their bite is incredibly painful and is rumored to be the most painful bite inflicted by any insect.   Due to the fact that giant water bugs know that they’re bad asses, they feed on anything that they think they can handle (turtles, frogs, snakes, big toes, etc…) and thus they have earned several nicknames such as “toe-biters”, “alligator ticks”, and “biting leaves”.


So as the name suggests… This is a GIANT bug.  Adults are found well over 2 inches long and more than an inch wide.  They’re bodies are a dark gray to brown with orange legs and highlights around the wings and thorax.  These color patterns allow the giant water bug to blend in with leaves and other debris in shallow pools of water.  Their front legs are more like spears that are used to hold onto prey while injecting an immobilizing toxin with its mouth parts.


Like I even have to tell you why I chose the giant water bug as the Bug of the Week…  We all know the answer.  But in case you’re thinking that you’ve missed something critical while reading this or that it’s a trick, I’ll tell you why…

Two Reasons.

Reason 1: Parental Investment!  These ruthless hunters are not only fierce killers, but they are also very caring parents.   Mating takes a long time and a huge amount of energy to complete.  Once the females have been mated and the eggs are fertilized, the females seek out their mates and oviposit (lay eggs) on the elytra of the males.  From this point on the males are left with the responsibility to protect the eggs and ensure a safe hatching for the new little, giant water bug babies.

Reason 2: Theatrical fake deaths!  Everyone hears that playing dead can deter wild animals and even humans that wish you harm.  Well to say the least, that doesn’t always work out.  Maybe that’s because we don’t SELL our fake death as well as giant water bugs do…  When approached by a larger predator, the giant water bug plays dead.  They float lifelessly atop the water and incase that isn’t enough they release a fluid from their rectum to really stress the fact that they are dead.  Often times, collectors mistake this escape tactic as an easy specimen to add to the collection…  However, a quick, surprise attack releases them back to the water while the human hits the floor in pain!

Pretty awesome!


Get rid of it?  You’re crazy…  Unless they’re attacking some of your friends in your decorative pond outside, I’d let them live long and prosper 🙂

And here is a video of the giant water bug hunting and gives some additional tid bits of information!  Enjoy the exciting commentary!!!


Sighted at McCrory: Red admirals in disguise and another good-old butter-colored fly

This is the first post of what I expect to be highly irregular yet hopefully unique reports of insect sightings at McCrory Gardens in Brookings, SD. I, my wife and our baby enjoy McCrory gardens about once a week especially in the spring and fall. Each time we spot a blog-worthy insect during our walk, I’ll try to share it on this blog.
This past weekend, McCrory Gardens was teeming with butterflies, mostly Pierid butterflies and red admirals. We were walking past the  the cottage garden when I saw something I’ve never noticed about red admirals before. Take a look at the picture above if you please.
The picture above shows a spread of leaf litter right outside the small cottage. Now, try to spot a red admiral hidden among the litter.
Found it yet? If not, try the picture below for a size. This second picture was taken at a more or less same angle as the first one with a bit of a zoom.
A bit clearer, eh? Indeed, I’ve not noticed that red admirals blend rather well with leaf litters. The underside of the wings is dull and blend even better with dead leaves (I tried to wait until it rested flat-winged but my patience ran over pretty quickly), but even with the bright red lines on the upperside of the wings they still seemed to disguise themselves quite fine. The picture below shows the closest zoom of the three pics I took.
Red admirals are fun. They belong to the family Nymphalidae or brush-footed butterflies. Other popular nymphalids include emperor and tortoiseshell butterflies. Red admirals are readily found in backyard gardens and I’ve heard stories that once a red admiral chose a garden to be its home, it also adopts the gardener alighting on him/her quite unabashedly.
As a parting image of this first-ever ‘Sighted at McCrory’ posting, below is a picture of a Pierid butterfly taken at the gardens. Pieridae is a family of butterfly commonly identified by its yellow-white-orangish wing color. The story goes that the word ‘butterfly’ was first coined in conjunction with the color property of a pierid butterfly: butter-colored fly.

How do seed-applied insecticides affect bee health?

Pick an insecticide with a neonicotinoid active ingredient, say Thiamethoxam, and browse through the label to the point where you find the information on “Environmental Hazard”. It is that part of the label that tells you  whether the particular insecticide is toxic against non-target organisms. Under this headline, you’ll find something like “This product is toxic to wildlife and highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates.” with a standard precautionary note running like “do not contaminate water”. Interestingly, depending on the insecticide label you read, you may or may not find this line “This toxic is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment on blooming crops or weeds”. Two insecticides with exactly the same neonicotinoid active ingredient may have differing labels when it comes to bee-related risks, what gives?

The underlying thought is that some insecticides are utilized as foliar application and thus have a very real risk of being sprayed on bees. Yet other insecticides, albeit containing the same active ingredient, are formulated as seed treatment and, consequently, assumed to pose low risk to bees due to low chance of exposure. Risk is, as the mantra goes, the meeting of toxicity and exposure.


Photo: David Cappaert, Michigan State University, http://www.insectimages.org

A research by a team of entomologists at Purdue University may shed a light on this matter. In their open-access paper, the authors reported that “extremely high levels of clothianidin and thiamethoxam were found in planter exhaust material produced during the planting of treated maize seed.” Insecticide-treated seeds are sticky and to prevent the sticking of seeds in the planter talc are often added to the mixture. The talc that has been in close contact with insecticide are often blown away as a part of planter ‘exhaust material’, carrying traces of insecticides on them. Blooming weeds around planted fields, in this case dandelions, were found to contain neonicotinioid insecticides. The detectable level of neonicotinoids on these flowers may come from direct settling of insecticide-containing dust on them or by the weeds taking up the insecticides from the soil. Honey bees readily forage on these flowering weeds.

At the minimum, this result highlighted a possible route of exposure previously assumed not to exist: insecticide may still reach bees even if it is used to treat seeds and not as a foliar spray. Whether the amount of insecticide carried through planter exhaust poses significant poisoning risk to bees is yet to be convincingly proven. Yet, if further research shows that this route of exposure significantly increase the poisoning risk to bees during planting season, thought must be given on managing planter exhaust.


This portion of Bug of the Week is dedicated to an insect that is near and dear to my heart- the mole cricket.  Or as friends back home would say, “The MIGHTY mole cricket”!  This particular bug belongs to the order Orthoptera which includes grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets and is a proud member of the family Gryllotalpidae.  I remember my first encounter with the mighty mole cricket…  A fellow entomologist and I were working for a professor of entomology during the summer (before we had committed ourselves to this field).  While looking at all the different insects we had caught we noticed the weirdest looking creature.  It was an insect, but it had paws…  Alien-like to say the least, but incredible nonetheless.  Later we learned that it was the common, yet unnoticed mole cricket and since then, this particular insect took on role as our intramural sports mascot as well as one of my all-time favorite insects.


The adult mole cricket is a strange, strange critter to look at…  The first thing you notice, before anything else, is the large paws that are incredibly similar to what you would see on a mole.


***For those of you that don’t know, entomologists aren’t the most clever of folks and we tend to call things the way we see it:  “Mole-like paws on a cricket???  EUREKA!  From this day one, we shall call this a ‘Mole Cricket’…”  And that’s how insects are named! 

These “paws” are actually the dactyls.  Dactyls are attached to the foreleg and assist the mole cricket in tunneling through various soil types as well as maiming prey.  There’s an excellent picture below from www.ncse.com that compares a spade, mole paw, human hand, and dactyl…  Very interesting!!!


Species of mole crickets can be distinguished by examining the formation of the dactyls.  Adults can exceed 2” and have orange-brown bodies with heavily sclerotized head, limbs, and thorax.  Both sexes have elongated cerci at the end of the abdomen and antennae that are less than the overall body length of the cricket.

Eggs can be found adjacent to the burrow in a chamber of their own.  The eggs are small, bean shaped, brown eggs.  Typically they are found in loose clusters of 30-60.

Nymphs are smaller, darker versions of the adults. 


Now many of you may be thinking that I chose the mole cricket to be Bug of Week because of its rather unusual appearance, but I actually chose it because they are skilled musicians and craftsmen!  The male mole crickets in an effort to seduce a female take a similar approach to what many college guys do…  However, instead of picking up a guitar and playing Wonderwall by Oasis or some sort of John Mayer song, they shape their underground burrow into a horn.  By sculpting their home into a large horn, the males are able to amplify their mating song so that females flying overhead will hear.   From there the females follow the song back to burrow like a bunch of teenage groupies chasing Justin Bieber back to his trailer.  Below is a depiction of what this megaphone type burrow looks like (compliments of  Nickerson et al. 1979. Ann. Entomol. Soc. Am. 72(3):438-440).



Sadly, the mole cricket is considered a pest in some social circles.  Not every golfer or homeowner stops to appreciate the mole cricket’s uniqueness as we all do and therefore I must explain how to manage mole cricket populations.  There are several options to achieve successful management of these critters such as planting larger plants that are more than just seedlings, biological control via birds, raccoons, mice, or nematodes, and lastly chemicals.  I would strongly recommend that you try other options before applying a chemical management strategy.



AGAIN PLEASE NOTE THAT I DO NOT TAKE CREDIT FOR ANY OF THE IMAGES USED ABOVE!  Once I have my photos all compiled and edited I will start using my own 🙂