Thursday, August 7, 2014

Bug Buddies of the Fox River Valley!

With the good weather we enjoyed at "Ketelsen East" last month, my macro lens and shooting skills got put to work to document some of the outdoor world in Kane County, Illinois.  Besides the stands of plants within 50 yards of the house (which includes the banks of the Fox River), I also frequently made the trip up to the relatively new Riverbend Park, about a mile up the road.  Besides a mile-long bike/walking loop, there are playgrounds, skate park and ball fields for the kids, dog runs for the adults, and a considerable area of prairie with the loop trail traversing it for easy access.

This trip, being July, the Queen Anne's lace, milkweed, and coneflower were in full glory, and I always look to the milkweed for the variety of insect life that feed on the toxic sap.  Even over a small grove of the plants, I found some still in full flower, the unusual form shown at left, and some with half-developed seed pods, shown at right.  In past posts I've shown shots of the milkweed bugs and beetles (make sure you go to the link if you don't know the difference!).  Both were in abundance this trip, but the first thing I learned that session is to not shoot on windy days!   Trying to get detailed close-ups, when the wind is strong is an exercise in futility...  A few of these single shots of the flowers and pods were about the highlights that morning.

Meanwhile, back at the house, the few milkweed that used to grow along the banks of the Fox were nowhere to be found, but interestingly, I spotted these flowers at left.  Do they look familiar?  They are virtually identical to the milkweed flowers above, but the plant looked completely different!  So it was apparently a variety of milkweed - I didn't even know there were different forms!  And there were some interesting insects on it - not the beetles or bugs mentioned above, but something completely different.  It appeared to be a giant version of a ladybird beetle, except something closer to 8 or 9mm long - in other words, pretty huge!  They are shown at right.  I was at a loss to identify them, so called in an expert.  Interestingly, they are called Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetles, Labidomera clivicollis!  And yes, the plant is evidently a swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnate...  D'oh!

Both of these pictures were taken on a calm day, and fortunately, the beetles weren't real active, so I used the focus-stacking method of imaging, both of these consisting of 9 individual exposures, all with the on-camera flash (Canon XSi) and 100mm macro with 35mm of extension tubes for close-ups (and a tripod, of course).  The exposures were combined in Photoshop to extend the range of sharpness over more than a single frame would display.

And wouldn't you know it - after a couple years of examining milkweeds closely, looking for Monarch Butterflies or their larvae that feed almost exclusively on Milkweed, I finally found one feeding on this swamp milkweed plant!  Shown at left, it was very active and wouldn't pause for a picture.  It was seen only this one time, so fortunately I had the camera along to capture it - I returned  for several days but didn't see the larva or chrysalis in subsequent searches.  A pair of Monarch butterflies were also spotted, but it was another windy day and I never saw them alight to even try to approach them.  I've heard they are becoming more rare in the Midwest due to loss of milkweed food sources, and some bad storms where they overwinter in Mexico.  If you've not read about their incredible annual migration, the Wiki link tells the amazing story...

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about the "insect of the summer", last year's winner was the two-Spot Treehopper, this years is shown here.  A friend of my AZ "Bugman" identified it as a nymph stage of the planthopper Acanalonia conica.  With a Google search of that I found what the adult looks like, and a couple days later I spotted and photographed one!  It is shown at right - dramatically different from the nymph stage, and an amazing development of camouflage to hide from predators.  This is the only time I spotted the adult, so again, as mentioned above, always have the camera handy - you don't know when you won't have a second chance!

And while I only saw the adult once, I did see several nymphs change form over the course of a few days.  Since they don't really grow because of their hard shell, they molt their skin, and I spotted one on the plant on which several had been feeding, shown at left.  Many of the details of the insect can be spotted in its discarded skin including the eye spot and legs...  A later form of the nymph is shown at right, and compared to the earlier version above, you can see the sides of it are starting to form the green side that will eventually form the leaf disguise.  What looks like cotton coming out of its butt is actually a waxy substance that is used to help repel water and also help it stick to the plant...

The red bud bushes adjacent to the house was a fertile hunting ground for insects.  An amazing diversity was spotted this year, including this beauty shown at left, a treehopper, Ceresa alta, a horned or buffalo treehopper.  You can tell from the resemblance to cicadas that they are related...  And while on hoppers, a beaut that I've seen before, but not around the house, the candy-striped leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea, shown at right.  Both of these are focus-stacked, 9 frames at left, 7 at right, both with use of the on-camera flash.  The Candy-striped is a marvel - the pair of primary legs are "cocked" so that they can hop away in an instant if needed.  Evidently they do not well-control their intake of plant sap into their bodies - the excess is forcibly ejected from their little orifice at the rear, which occurred at couple-second intervals for some time...

I'll close with a disparate pair.  At left is one we've all likely collected in our youth, the eastern firefly, Photinus pyralis.  I caught this one before "showtime", a little before sunset, and was quite active, so is only a single shot.  This frame shows a side view we don't usually see, so looks a bit strange when first examined...  This year's display of fireflies wasn't outstanding, perhaps because of the cool weather, but they were visible most every night.  The last insect shown here is an import - Halyomorpha halys - a brown marmorated stink bug.  Now an agricultural pest, it was unknown in the US 15 years ago, but was thought  imported in a shipment of wooden pallets from China about then.  While I'm trying to learn more about insects, it is tough...  From the family name Pentatomidae, Penta is from the Greek for the number 5, which from various sources either refers to the 5 segments in its antenna, or to the 5 plate segments that make up the back shield.

Well, that is about enough for this entry, not because I've run out of bug pics, but I try to keep entries reasonable in length and this one is already over the limit!  Enjoy and stay tuned!

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