The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


July 20, 2013

Please don’t bug the insects

Summer time is insect time. Unfortunately, stinging and biting species such as wasps and mosquitoes get most of our attention for all the wrong reasons. Many insects are beneficial, and most are benign.

My favorite summer insects are hummingbird moths. I know they have begun to emerge because digital images from readers arrive almost daily.

Hummingbird moths are fuzzy bee mimics. They have antennae and a long proboscis, and they hover at flowers while sipping nectar, just like hummingbirds. But their antennae make them insects.

Clearwing hummingbird moths are among the smallest and most common of these fascinating insects. Approach slowly and observe carefully to see the proboscis uncoil as the moth approaches a flower to nectar. The transparent wings will be obvious.

Another common hummingbird moth is known by the name of its caterpillar and is probably most familiar to gardeners. Tomato hornworms are fat, green, fleshy caterpillars that eat tomatoes and their leaves, and eventually transform into five-spotted hawk-moths.

Sometimes hornworms are covered with tiny white capsules. These are pupal cases of tiny wasps that parasitized the caterpillars. By the time the wasps pupate, the hornworm will be dead. The larval wasps consumed the hornworm from the inside before emerging to pupate.

Butterflies are best known for their grace and beauty. Tiger swallowtails and fritillaries are abundant this summer, but I have yet to see a single monarch. Heat, drought and herbicides destroy milkweed plants in the plains and midwest, and monarch need milkweeds. Milkweeds are their only host plant.

Fireflies or lightning bugs evoke fond memories in anyone raised in the country. At dusk they emerge and light the backyard with their Morse code-like flashes of bioluminescence. The darker the night, the more impressive the show.

Fireflies flash to attract mates. Each species has a unique flash pattern. At dusk, males take flight and begin flashing. When a female of the same species recognizes the appropriate pattern, she flashes back in recognition. Ultimately the male finds the female, and the pair mates.

This communication system is easy to test. Study the flash patterns of the fireflies in your backyard. Mimic the female’s pattern (the one in the grass) with a flashlight and see if a male approaches in search of a receptive female.

And by the way, these most familiar insects are neither flies nor bugs; they are actually classified as beetles.

Tiger beetles, as the name implies, are ferocious predators, and they’re easy to recognize because their bodies are brightly and iridescently colored. I often find them when I flip rocks in the backyard. They are fast and track down insect prey on foot. Then they use their powerful mandibles to rip their prey into pieces.

Larval tiger beetles are even more brutal. They hide inside a vertical burrow and anchor themselves with abdominal hooks. When unsuspecting prey wanders too near the mouth of the burrow, the larva lunges out and grabs the victim. It uses its large scythe-like jaws to kill the prey, then retreats to the burrow for a peaceful meal.

Dragonflies and damselflies (members of the order Odonata) patrol the edges of ponds, lakes, marshes, swamps and streams. They are relatively large and territorial, so they’re easy to observe, especially with binoculars. Many are brightly colored or conspicuously marked. Often they approach and land on boats that enter their territories.

One of the things I love about odonates is their common names. Violet dancer, fragile forktail, unicorn clubtail, dragonhunter and ruby meadowhawk are just a few.

Though ferocious in appearance, odonates are harmless to people. They do not bite or sting.  They are, however, voracious predators of flying insects of all sizes. The aforementioned dragonhunter measures almost 3.5 inches and eats other dragonflies and even large swallowtail butterflies. Most odonates eat smaller insects, including deerflies, horseflies and mosquitoes.

The basic odonate body plan includes a large head dominated by huge compound eyes, transparent wings and an elongated abdomen. Dragonflies have larger, heavier bodies and, at rest, hold their wings flat and perpendicular to the body. Damselflies are slimmer and more delicate and, at rest, fold their wings together above the body.

Summer belongs to the insects. Enjoy them.

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