A rare beauty

It’s rare that I would see something rare, but that must be the case with this rare beauty I found on my neighbor’s Shasta Daisy plant the other day, because I spent two hours looking at various moth and butterfly websites to get an ID for it.  Nothing even faintly resembled the color pattern of this particular moth, and you know when that happens that it hasn’t been seen or photographed very much.

leadplant flower moth, Schinia lucens, nectaring on a Shasta Daisy

A fuzzy purple and white striped moth — in the daytime, in the hot sun, nectaring on a Shasta Daisy.  Aren’t moths nocturnal creatures, especially the hairy ones?

This is a very hairy moth, with its head mostly tucked under its thorax.  It seemed quite intent on sucking up every drop of nectar it could find in the daisy.

This is a very hairy moth, with its head and greenish eyes mostly down and tucked under its thorax. It seemed quite intent on sucking up every drop of nectar it could find in the daisy.

Patience rewarded finally, I found a similar-looking moth on a website about moths of the UK, so at least I knew to start looking at Noctuid moths on BugGuide, and there it was — the Leadplant flower moth (Schinia lucens).

leadplant flower moth, Schinia lucens, on Leadplant

This is the typical host plant for Leadplant flower moth — the Leadplant.  You can see they blend into their environment much better on this prairie plant than they do on the starkly white background of the daisy. (Photo by Armund Bartz, Wisconsin DNR)

The distribution of the Leadplant flower moth in the U.S. naturally follows the distribution of Leadplant in the dry prairies of the central and western part of the country. It is rare where Leadplant is rare, but widespread wherever the plant occurs, because the moth larvae are solely dependent on the maturing seeds of leadplant for their development.

leadplant among prairie plants

Leadplant (Amorpha canescrens), in the foreground with long flower spikes, is a member of the pea family found in dry prairies.  The name probably comes from the grayish tinge of the vegetation, not from its ability to extract lead from the soil, as some have claimed.  The flowers are unusual for pea flowers, having just one large petal, hence the genus name Amorpha.

leadplant flower moth, Schinia lucens, on Leadplant

Photo by Kyle Johnson from a presentation by Armund Bartz, Wisconsin DNR

Depending on the abundance of just one host plant for successful reproduction is a risky strategy.  Herbivore species may disappear when the habitat or environmental conditions eliminate their sole host plant.  This can result in local extinctions, and if those environmental conditions become pervasive, then global extinctions may occur.  Leadplant is a common plant on dry prairies, but only where grazing pressure is light.  It is highly palatable to cattle and disappears with high intensity grazing, and so of course, would the rare beauty of the Leadplant flower moth.

Ant wars

Boundary disputes settled by all-out warfare.  Sound familiar?

pavement ant war

Ants erupt from the pavement edge in response to intruders from a nearby colony.  

Such eruptions of millions of these pavement ants from their nest happen infrequently, but predictably in the spring, when colonies get too large and need to expand, only to find that they have trespassed on a neighboring colony in their expansion.  Pavement ants are fiercely aggressive, attacking members of another colony with their large mandibles and ripping heads from bodies.

pavement ant war

Members of one colony face off head-to-head against members of another, as you can see from the two by two line-ups in the photo.

Tetramorium caespitum- www.alexanderwild.com

My macro lens wasn’t up to the job of zeroing in on these tiny (less than 1/4 inch) critters, but photos by Alex Wild illustrate the face-off perfectly.  Those enlarged mandibles on their square-shaped heads can do a lot of damage.

Pavement ants are tiny, household pests that must have come with early settlers of North America, because they have been here since the early 1800s.  The must be hearty creatures because they can colonize some of the most uninhabitable-looking spaces.  The mounds of sand and dirt you might find between slabs of concrete in the summer are the work of pavement ants venting their underground nests.

pavement ant war

The day after I took the first photo above, an even larger eruption of pavement ants took place on the opposite side of the driveway.

Just another day in the life of a pavement any colony.

Incidentally, if you like cool photos of insects, Alex Wild’s photo gallery has some amazing ones.

Missing something

Red-bellied Woodpecker juvenile

Is it the angle of this shot or does this juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker seem to be missing something? Its tail.

Red-bellied Woodpecker juvenile and House Finch

Yes, definitely missing its tail, as well as the signature red feathers on the crown and nape of its neck.  But the latter is typical of juveniles, the former (tail loss) is a liability.

Some predator may have tried to grab the youngster by its tail and pulled the feathers out. Normally, wing and tail feathers would develop simultaneously in young birds, so a fully feathered wing and absence of tail indicates some foul play here.

Woodpecker tails form the third leg of a tripod with their feet to support them on vertical surfaces, as the photo below illustrates.  The central tail feathers are pointed and especially stiff, propping the bird up while holding the body away from the tree surface.

Red-bellied Woodpecker illustrating the tripod of support provided by two legs and stiffened tail feathers

Woodpeckers typically spread their tail feathers as they land on a vertical surface, increasing the surface area of that third leg.  The central quill (rachis) must be strong enough to function as a support but must also flex and not bend, like a drinking straw would. This is accomplished by increasing the diameter of the central tail feather rachis, filling it with a high density of interlocking keratin proteins surrounded by a rigid keratin shell.

hairy woodpecker tail cross section-from http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/materials-science-and-engineering/3-a26-freshman-seminar-the-nature-of-engineering-fall-2005/projects/wp_tail_feathev1.pdf

Cross sections of the central quill (rachis) of body and tail feathers of a Hairy Woodpecker illustrate well the strengthening provided by higher density of keratin in the shaft of the tail feather.  From a presentation by Tiffany Lee (MIT open courseware).

Without its tail support, young RBW will find it difficult to forage for grubs under the tree bark.  Perhaps that’s why it has been a constant visitor at the birdseed feeders recently.

Japanese beetle magnet

Another lovely plant that I won’t be adding to my garden — Hollyhocks.  They seem to be as much of a Japanese beetle magnet as my roses and raspberries.

japanese beetle on hollyhock

It starts like this..one or two beetles on lovely just opened Hollyhock flowers

japanese beetles on hollyhock

And once the “odeur de scarabee Japonais” (pardon my French — or lack thereof) has been released into the air, a mating orgy begins.

A sex pheromone is released by females and sensed by a receptor in the male’s antennae to lure them in.  But other females can also sense this chemical in the air and are drawn into its source, with the expectation that males will also be there.  And so, a mating orgy ensues.

japanese beetles on hollyhock

Skeletonized leaves and munched flowers leave little of the hollyhock beauty to admire.

A Cedar Waxwing jumped down to one plant to inspect the beetle congregation but left without taking one.

A Cedar Waxwing jumped down to one plant to inspect the beetle congregation but left without taking one.

Each year the Japanese beetle population gets a little larger and infests a greater variety of plants.  What's a gardener to do?

Each year the Japanese beetle population gets a little larger and infests a greater variety of plants. What’s a gardener to do?

A beautiful villain

I found one of the culprits that can cause cucumber wilt on some milkweed plants in a backyard nearby yesterday — the very attractive orange and black Squash vine borer moth (Melittia cucurbitae).  It’s too bad they are such damaging pests in the garden because they are quite photogenic.

squash vine borer moth sipping nectar from milkweed

It looks like a wasp from a distance with its striped body and long dangling legs, but is actually a member of the clearwing moth family (Sesiidae).

Long, highly “feathered” back legs drag behind the body as the moth flies, making it look like the wasp that it is trying to imitate.  But the clear, moth-shaped wings give it away, although these are not really visible to the human eye because they are moving so fast, they almost disappear.

squash vine borer moth on common milkweed flowers

The wings are just a gray blur in this photo, and you can clearly see the long proboscis inserted into the nectary of the milkweed flower — a very un-wasp like head. It looks like those hind legs also have some sharp spikes on them, as well as their feathery covering of scales.

Many of the species in the Sesiidae family are active in the daytime and are brightly colored, yellow and black or orange and black, mimicking bee or hornet coloration. This Batesian mimicry (in which a palatable species mimics an unpalatable or predatory one) presumably reduces their chances of being eaten by predators while foraging on flowers in the daylight.

squash-vine-borer on swamp milkweed

At rest, the mimicry is closer to the real model, since its folded wings do resemble the shape of a wasp’s.  (This is probably the culprit whose larvae wilted my cucumber vines last year — feeding on the swamp milkweed flowers in my backyard.  You can read more about that here.)

Other members of the Sesiidae family are also agricultural pests, infesting fruit tree, vegetable, and timber crops, as their larvae bore into the woody stems or trunk and decimate the interior vasculature system of the plant.

The Clearwing Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is no relation to the garden villain above.  It’s a member of the Sphingidae family of hawkmoths, and although the larvae do feed on honeysuckle vines and some fruit trees, they don’t do nearly the damage that the Sesiidae species do.

Clearwing Hummingbird Moth nectaring on flowers of an Apocynum species

This photo is from a recent post on critters of the northern bogs and forests, but the Clearwing Hummingbird Moth can be found almost everywhere in North America from Alaska to Florida.   Hawkmoths have a stouter, less slender body, shorter legs, and no scales on their legs, compared to the Squash vine borer moths. 

I’m not sure what the significance of clear wings is in these very different clearwing moth species.  Perhaps lack of scales on the wings means less air resistance during hovering flight, which both types of moths use for nectar foraging; or perhaps clear wings enhance their mimicry; or perhaps clear wings just present a smaller target to potential predators, since they appear almost transparent while the moth is flying.  Whatever the reason, the convergence of species from two different moth families is an interesting one.

Gardening woes

This is the third year in a row that I have failed at raising cucumbers and tomatoes.  In previous years, the tomatoes have suffered through fusarium wilt and a squash borer moth that lays eggs in the cucumber vine stems. (See an earlier post on the “wasp moth” for more details on this pest.)  But this year, perfectly healthy plants have just wilted over the course of one day with no apprarent cause.

Healthy (right) vs wilted (left) cucumber plant

The cucumber plant on the left looked fine yesterday, but is wilted this morning. Plant on the right is still looking healthy so far.

Healthy (left) vs wilted (right) tomato plants

The same thing is happening here, but the tomato plant on the right has been looking poorly for several days and today is completely wilted, while the tomato plant on the left looks fine.

In addition to checking out my soil moisture, I also checked the cucumber vines for the presence of a bacterium that causes wilt.  Cucumber beetles that lay their eggs and feed on the young stems and leaves of the plants harbor the bacteria in their gut and inject it into the plant stems as they feed.  At high density, the bacteria then clog up the plant vessels that transport water, so the plant wilts.  I tested for the presence of the bacteria by cutting the stems of wilted plants and squeezing out the xylem and phloem — no milky, sticky exudate appeared, so I don’t think bacterial wilt is the cause either.

Anyone have any ideas about what is going on here? I think the only thing one can do about this is to not use the garden space for a couple of years until the soil biota that are causing the problems disappear.

A look back – a 3rd blogiversary

It seems quite a few people decide to start a blog in July, as did I three years ago.  My daughter convinced me that I needed an outlet for all the geeky science stuff I taught for 38 years.  So she made a home page, with a banner of water lilies from a shot she took, and christened the blog:  Back Yard Biology.

My first entry on July 17, 2011 was about the insect I hate to see in my garden, Japanese Beetles.

Japanese Beetle damage to raspberry leaves

I started out with a Canon point-and-shoot so this was as close as I got to small things.

sunflower-crop in northern Minnesota

A year later, July 18, 2012, we were visiting prairies in northwestern Minnesota. They grow a lot of sunflowers up there, and I couldn’t pass up this field at sunset. All facing the same direction, just like students in a big classroom.


On July 17, 2013 I found two male 12-spotted skimmers having a face-off on a tomato stake in my front yard.  The pink background is actually the faded color of my house.

Three years of blogging, 695 posts, I can’t imagine how many words or photos posted, 222 faithful followers who must take a peek almost every day because the average is about 200 views per day, 102,800 total lifetime views of the blog, and 3,998 comments.  Thank you, blog readers, for making this such a fun and educational experience for me.


The animal that continues to garner the most views per day (about 40) is the Great Black Wasp (“Scary-looking, big black wasp alert” posted on July 25, 2012). It must have been the exciting title that generates interest!?


There has to be a bird in a blogiversary post, and my personal favorite from the backyard is this female Ruby-throated Hummingbird approaching Cardinal Flower (from Aug. 17, 2013).

Learning to fish

A family of Green Herons has taken up residence in the pond in the backyard.  I think there were 5 juveniles hunting along the shore of the pond, which is shallow and almost completely covered with duckweed.

Adult Green Heron, Butorides virescens

One of the adults just happened to be hunting near where I was standing.  They hunt the sparse openings in the duckweed right where tree limbs and debris have fallen into the water.  Perhaps this is where fish congregate as well.

Adult Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Shooting birds through a tangle of tree branches means there is always something obstructing the view. So I removed some of the clutter with Photoshop.  Adult Green Herons are striking birds with their chestnut-colored breast feathers and dark green head and back.

At the other end of the pond four of the five juveniles congregated on a tree trunk that had fallen into the pond this spring.  Its leafy branches hid them well from view, and also provided perches close to the water for them to practice their hunting.

Juvenile Green Herons

This was as close as I could get to four of the juvenile herons, about 200 feet away across the pond. The fourth heron is behind a big limb, and three mallard ducks perched on the fallen tree trunk for their afternoon nap.

I saw one of the parents feed one juvenile only once in the three hours I stood by the pond; the rest of the time they were on their own to search for food.  Adult Green Herons usually wander away from their breeding area after the nesting season, eventually moving into Central and northern South America for the winter. However, young herons stay at least until early fall on this set of ponds, where I have found them hunting in previous years. (See my earlier post on Heron fishing.)

Juvenile Green Herons learning to fish

I couldn’t tell what this youngster on the left found, but it tossed it around, dropped it, picked it up, and finally lost it in the water. Perhaps they don’t know yet what is edible.

Juvenile Green Heron and male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage

A fifth juvenile skulked far back in the leafy branches overhanging the pond scum. A male Wood Duck in eclipse (molt) plumage floated by, opening up some of the water surface as he swam and ate the duckweed.

The typical clutch size for Green Herons is 3-5 eggs, so this pair of herons must have harvested enough food to raise a large brood of youngsters.  I wouldn’t have thought such a small pond could support this many birds, but the heavy rain and run-off from feeder ponds upstream may have added to the fish and invertebrate populations this summer.


Just recently avian parents have started bringing their newly fledged offspring to the bird feeders to show them where to get a free meal.  I heard Baltimore Orioles vocalizing in the oak trees in the backyard, so I quickly added some grape jelly to the hummingbird feeder.  Within a few minutes, the whole oriole family visited, and continued to visit for the next couple of days.

Molting male Baltimore Oriole eating grape jelly

See, this is how you do it, kids.”  I think this might be first year male Baltimore Oriole that is molting its black head feathers.  Sometimes, even first-year males can attract a mate and raise a family.

Baltimore Oriole eating grape jelly

It’s slippery and sweet and slides right down.

Juvenile Baltimore Oriole in a Buckeye tree

A juvenile Baltimore Oriole watches how to eat jelly from the nearby Buckeye tree.  I thought this was a funny-looking Goldfinch until I heard the Orioles vocalizing to each other.

Juvenile Baltimore Orioles at grape jelly feeder

These juvenile orioles are pale in comparison to their parents. They lack the typical yellow belly, and their head feathers are mostly brown. It takes two full years for the male Baltimore Oriole to show his typical breeding plumage.

There's enough to everyone to share.

There’s enough for everyone to share.

Juvenile Baltimore Oriole eating grape jelly

Why grape jelly and not strawberry or blueberry flavors?

Unlike many fruit-eaters, Orioles prefer only the ripest, purple-est fruits, like mulberries, dark red cheeries, and of course, grapes.  I wonder about the blueberry flavor though, because a lot of the ripe blueberries are suddenly missing from my bushes.

Oriole parents feed their chicks insects, but switch their diet to the high energy sugar contents of ripe fruits in the fall in order to put on fat for migration.  It seems a little early for that — we barely have gotten into summer weather here. But the biological clock never lies, and preparation is the key to survival.


Word of the day:  Ornithophily — or obligate pollination by birds, and typically by hummingbirds.  Last summer, I wrote about the coevolutionary “perfect fit” of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Cardinal flowers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird sips nectar from Cardinal Flower picking up pollen on its head

As the hummingbird dips its beak into the long flower tube, the top of its head picks up pollen from the flower’s anthers.  The male (anther) parts of the flower are first to project from a new flower.  A day or two later, the anthers fold down and the female (stigma) projects from the flower tube to receive pollen from younger flowers.  In this way, the plant ensures that it gets cross-pollinated.  See Back Yard Biology, Aug 17, 2013/

Plants that depend on birds for pollination typically provide much higher volumes with higher sugar content of the nectar than insect-pollinated flowers. In contrast, insect-pollinated flowers tend to be heavily scented but have meager nectar with low sugar content.  So it’s no wonder so many insects find ways to enjoy the riches of bird-pollinated flowers without performing the vital pollination service.

A clump of Scarlet Beebalm, Monarda didyma

A large clump of Scarlet or Crimson Beebalm in my garden, with its ornithophilous flowers, awaits its pollinators — the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Honeybee obtaining nectar from scarlet beebalm

Honeybees (but there was only one in the garden) land on the lower part of the flower and climb into the long tube to reach the nectaries at the base of the corolla.  Their slender bodies fit perfectly into the floral tube, completely avoiding the anthers and stigma projecting from the flower.

Honeybee obtaining nectar from scarlet beebalm

Side view of the same approach by the honeybee as it walks into the flower tube.  The Y-tipped stigma and lobe-shaped anthers are clearly far away from the dorsal surface of the bee.

Honeybee obtaining nectar from Scarlet Beebalm

This bee had a good long drink of nectar in this flower before moving on.

Bumblebee obtaining nectar from Scarlet Beebalm

Even the bumblebee tried getting some of that rich sucrose each flower in the cluster provides.  However, the bumblebee’s chunkier body didn’t permit it to actually crawl into the flower.  Some Bumblebee species have a long hairy tongue that helps them reach deep into the flower.  I don’t know if this is one of those species.

I think Bumblebees might also have a different strategy to harvest nectar from flowers they are too large to crawl into.  Its body weight is enough to pull the flower down and allow nectar to flow down the floral tube toward the opening where the bee could lap it up.

Bumblebee obtaining nectar from Scarlet Beebalm

Bumblebees might be large enough to contact the anthers and/or stigma as they try to crawl into the flower. At least that’s what it looks like in this photo.  

Clearwing Hummingbird Moth sipping nectar from Scarlet Beebalm (http://www.wqed.org/birdblog/2012/07/07/a-bad-hair-day/)

Another nectar thief, the Clearwing Hummingbird Moth also enjoys the rich nectar of Scarlet Beebalm without coming close to contacting the flower’s reproductive parts.  Photo by Kate St. John.

Ornithophily has its risks.  If birds don’t find the flowers or weather throws off the timing of the arrival of the birds and flower blooms, the plants risk not getting pollinated at all.  But in the case of the beebalm flowers, bumblebees might be able to make up for the lack of bird pollinators by transferring some pollen.  Why else would they call it bee-balm, and not bird-balm?