Monday, August 18, 2014

Time for another Home and Away

This is the home part.

On the last one, if you remember, I told you Sleepy Orange butterflies had visited our Senna bushes and laid a few eggs, and I showed you some pictures of their very ordinary green wormy-looking caterpillars. I remember saying they would get better looking as they got bigger. Cheryl saw that and said "No they don't." She was right, they went on being ordinary, but then they made neat chrysalises.

All the sulphur butterflies use this shape chrysalis, which I guess is meant to suggest a hanging leaf. (The one on the right has already emptied out its full-grown butterfly.) When we looked a few days later, the remaining chrysalis was beginning to go transparent, revealing some of the orange of the waiting butterfly.

I took these pictures this morning. When the chrysalis is in this state, it means it will open tomorrow. We looked around the senna plant some more, and found a chrysalis like this.

The outer skin is transparent, meaning it is completely separated from the butterfly within. What you are seeing is the upper side of the forewing, still mostly rolled up. When it looks like this, it means the butterfly will be coming out this day. When this butterfly is out, its upper wing will be bright orange with a black border around it. Inside the black border you can see a little black mark like a dash. Most species of sulphurs, in this part of their wing, have a small round black spot, usually called in descriptive parlance an "eye." In the case of this species, the "eye" appears to be "closed." Hence the name of the species, the Sleepy Orange.

Sure enough, a couple of hours after taking that picture, I checked again, and the butterfly was out.

The various species of Sulphurs virtually always land with their wings closed, showing only the underside. So that glimpse of the Sleepy Orange's upperside through the pupal skin was your last chance to see the closed eye.

What else is going on around the house? A big pizza-shaped wasp nest is flourishing under the eaves in front of the house. It's one of the paper wasps, Polistes exclamans. These are quite pretty and very peaceful (if we leave them alone) so we tolerate them. The big all red paper wasps, P. carolina, tend to attack us, so I'm afraid we get rid of them. If you look in the cells you can see larvae of all different ages. A few have spun white cocoons and are pupating.

A large moth I had noticed roosting during the hot days in the rafters of our garage has finally revealed itself as a Widow Underwing.

Our milkweed plants only raised about four Monarchs this spring, in this very down year for the species. Though we did not see a Monarch in the yard lately, to our surprise we found a caterpillar munching away on the leathery late summer leaves. Monarchs are so precious now, we brought the caterpillar into the house to raise it in a predator-free environment. It has now made its chrysalis and should emerge in about ten days.

Last year was such a poor year for the big Argiope garden spiders, that by late summer we only had one left. This year by contrast we have them by the score, and some of the biggest ones I've ever seen.  But I've been looking for Argyrodes, the tiny silver kleptoparasitic spiders that live in the webs with them, and haven't seen a one. I guess a bad year for the host spider leads to a bad year for the parasite, and the parasite has still not recovered this year. But that does not mean the big spiders are free from annoying pests. The equally tiny Milichiid Flies, that follow wasps or robber flies around, often riding on their backs, or hang around spider webs, waiting for a kill to be made so they can swarm in and drink the blood and other fluids from the prey animals, are having a wonderful year. There are about a dozen in this picture. You can see the spider from time to time trying to shake them off. In the second picture, the spider had wrapped up a Polistes exclamans (very likely from the nest pictured above) and set it aside for a snack later, but the flies couldn't wait.

One day my pet scorpion was standing up looking out of the glass of its aquarium, and in so doing revealed an interesting part of its anatomy.

The funny processes coming down from between its hind legs are called pectines, or combs. Scorpions are nearly blind, and the pectines, sensitive to vibrations, are its main sense organs.

And then, there was a mystery, in fact, a crime scene, which I am trying to use my forensic skill on, developed by watching hours of detective thrillers on Netflix. As I was waking down the driveway I saw at my feet a fresh healthy looking dragonfly (Pantala hymenaea), without a mark on it, but stone dead. As proof that it was alive and functioning at the moment of its suspicious death, it was carrying in its jaws an insect it had just caught. Here is what I saw:

I carefully examined the insect it had captured, and discovered it was an assassin bug (a surface killer vs. an aerial killer). The bug has a long thick jointed beak backed up by strong venom and digestive enzymes. The beak was not now stuck into the dragonfly, but could the bug, while being fatally chomped by the dragon, have got in a defensive stab?

I was about to write this blog, when I got another piece of luck (if finding a dead dragonfly can be considered "luck"): I happened upon one of my favorite caterpillars, The Laugher, named for the uproarious expression on his face.

We brought him in, he wrapped himself in an oak leaf, and inside the oak leaf he spun a coccoon, and we will not see him again until next spring when he appears as a handsome moth. But in our brief view of him I got what I wanted, a chance to end this blog with a happy face.

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