Insect Safari

It’s Tuesday morning, and that means it’s time to go out with the Tuesday Morning Naturalists – a group that meets here at 9 AM every Tuesday to hit the trails with one of our staff, usually Gary. Some days the group looks for birds, some days flowers, some days whatever can be found.  Anyone can come along – it’s free and open to all.

Today our target was insects.  Everyone got a sweep net and out we went, first to The Insect Field, and then the prairie.

Sweeping for insects requires a little bit of skill, but once the rudiments of net handling are mastered, it’s pretty easy to scoop your way across an open space.

We had a couple bug boxes along to help view insects up close and in person.

And what did we find?  Here are some highlights of the walk.

One of our first catches was this very large, brown, European praying mantis.  Mantises are fascinating insects, with their triangular heads, enormous front legs, and predacious manner.  Those spiny front legs are enough to give me the willies, and I’m much larger!

Now, this is one of my all-time favorites:  a jumping spider.  I love jumping spiders – they are just so darn cute!  Jumping spiders are small, and they jump (hence the clever name).  What’s so marvelous about them (and what makes them so cute) is their eyes.  These guys have terrific eyesight.  Those four big eyes up front are very characteristic of the jumping spiders, and their vision is so good that they will actually watch you!  What must they think of us as we peer at them?

This was probably the most colorful insect we caught (all the butterflies avoided our nets).  It is a cucumber beetle.  Not native, and rather a pest, but it is kind of a pretty beetle.  This one took a fancy to my field guide.

Now, perhaps you have noticed lately when outside that there are some rather gigantic mosquitoes out there.  I mean, they are flippin’ enormous!  They have striped legs, and their bodies are close to an inch long.  I’ve heard said that they are a species usually only found further north and are not normally seen in these here parts.  We were well covered with them this morning, so it wasn’t too difficult to find one to photograph.  It was more problematic to have the victim stand still so you could snap the photo.  This one was well drilled in by the time I got her into focus.

There are lots of butterflies around, so I’m hoping this is a larva from one of them.  I have sent the photo to and am awaiting an answer.
Ditto this fly.  The image is cropped and blown up, so it’s a bit blurry.  Tiny little fly, but with enormous appendage out behind the abdomen.  Stinger?  Ovipositor?  We’ll see what BugGuide has to say. Update:  BugGuide concurs with Cody (see comments below) that this is a Rhagoletis, but they aren’t sure which species from the photo.  AND, that is an ovipositor, so this is a female.  And what are Rhagoletis spp?  They are Mediterranean fruit flies.  Hm.  I was kind of hoping it might be Urophora cardui, which is a European fly that was brought over to combat Canada Thistle, which is another invasive non-native plant.
As we made our way over to the Tall Grass part of our Prairie, this brilliant green praying mantis caught my eye.  It turns out it is also a European mantis, which comes in brown and green models.  Could this be a male, since it was significantly smaller than the other (which maybe was a female)?

Here’s the only butterfly we were able to get close enough to to photograph.  It is a silver-spotted skipper.  Skippers are one of the five major butterfly families, and once you know what to look for, they are pretty easily identifiable from the other four families.  They are generally brown, orange or white and have fairly short antennae that are hooked at the tip.  The silver-spotted is pretty common, so keep an eye peeled for it out in fields.

Of course, I had to try to photograph the water droplets that were dangling on much of the vegetation that was still in the shade.  We had a very heavy dew last night (it was in the 50s), so everything was quite wet this morning.  Phenomenal for photographing dewdrop-encrusted spiderwebs!  It’s a mission of mine to capture the perfect reflection in a droplet.  This requires a tripod, which I didn’t have with me, but I didn’t let this keep me from trying!  Through the drop you can see the prairie on the far side, reflected upside-down.

Cool mornings are great for insect hunting, unless the morning has a heavy dew.  It was headed for 10:00 by the time we hit the prairie, and things were still quite wet.  This made sweeping a bit of a challenge, for we ended up with soggy nets.  However, the sun was quite warm, so the insects had warmed up and were on the move.  Cool mornings usually slow the insects down, so you have better odds for sneaking up on them.  But where’s the challenge in that, eh?


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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2 Responses to Insect Safari

  1. Cody Porter says:

    Hi Ellen,

    I’m pretty sure your unidentified fly is of the Rhagoletis genus of the tephritid fruit fly family.

    The genus is extremely popular in evolutionary biology for two very different reasons:

    1) As you can see in your picture, the wings have markings that resemble the legs of a spider. When threatened, the flies actually perform a sort of dance with their wings, which imitates the stride of a jumping spider. Several studies have shown that this behavior is pretty effective in reducing predation.

    2) The Rhagoletis pomonella or apple maggot fly complex is a huge agricultural pest across the midwest and northeast United States. However, in order to become such a threat to apple orchards, this species had to “shift” from its “ancestral” hawthorn host to the apples we enjoy today, resulting in the formation of a race of flies specialized to a novel host. It is thought (though there is substantial contention) that the new, available niche provided by apple farming facilitated one of the few known cases of sympatric speciation.

    Keep up the great work — the blog is a great read!

    • dahlemcenter says:

      Hey, Cody – thanks! I took your info and consulted my Kaufman’s. These are also known as peacock flies (I wonder if these are the ones who make the goldenrod ball galls), and it is for their decorative wings that they are so named. The one that looks most like the one we saw is Urophora cardui, which, get this, is a European native that was brought over to control Canada thistle (which, despite its name, is also a European native). I am eager to see if BugGuide concurs with us!

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