A katydid’s tale

IMG_1075.jpg

The dark male Orchelimum nigripes, sitting on his usual perch.

A couple of months ago I wrote about finding and keeping Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. I finished that post with the note that three of my five nigripes (which I had collected on September 4th, 2016) were about to make it into February 2017, an unprecedented record. I intended to update that post when they finally died, but so many interesting things happened between the post and their deaths that I felt it deserved a full post rather than an add-on.

One of the three nigripes unfortunately did not make it into February, dropping off the map on January 21. The other two were alive well into February. Before this point I had not been able to tell them apart, but some rather interesting changes occurred at this late date that made it possible for me to characterize the two. One of them retained the usual summer coloration, as depicted in my photos from the earlier post. His wings were worn at the edges and he had a harder time climbing up smooth plastic surfaces, but otherwise he looked the same as he did when I first found him. The second katydid’s color changed dramatically. His entire body darkened, almost to the point of being completely black. If I had seen him in the wild then I would not have recognized him as a black-legged meadow katydid, so profound was the color transformation. I am not quite sure of the reason for his change. Many late-season grasshopper species (especially Melanoplus spp) turn darker as the season progresses, presumably to stay warm in increasingly cooler weather. The dark coloration may help them absorb more sunlight and thus prolong their lives as far into the fall as possible. I have noticed similar changes in katydids and tree crickets as well, but never so drastic. Why would this color change happen only in February, well past the time when these katydids would have reasonably needed it in the wild? And why didn’t it happen to the other male?

In any case, color was not the only thing that changed. Their behavior as the winter wore on underwent a surprising shift as well. Before, they had been very skittish around me. They would sing loudly and unabashedly in their private quarters, but as soon as I jarred the container or opened the lid to replace food, they would clam up, and sometimes spring about a few times in an escape attempt (which I always thwarted). This changed in February, however. When I opened the lids to their containers, they would momentarily stop singing, but after a few seconds start right back up again! Incredibly, it got to the point where I could carefully take them out, and they would continue singing while on my hand or on a table! Never in my history of keeping singing insects have I encountered an insect that would so brazenly sing in the face of imminent ‘danger’ from a large mammal such as myself. I was also able to do something I had only done before with mantids: offer them bits of food with forceps and have them accept it while sitting on my fingertips.

I also got to know their individual personalities a bit better. The one who retained his bright coloration was clearly the ‘alpha male’, as it were (for lack of a better term). His song was loud and persistent, and he clearly scared off the other male whenever they were allowed near each other. Once I let him get a bit too close to the other male and the ‘alpha’ rushed at him with mouthparts agape. Obviously I didn’t let this interaction go any further. The dark-colored male was equally persistent with his singing, but his song was not nearly as loud. Over time, it became very scratchy. The typical “tick-tick-tick-bzzzzzzzz” song slowly morphed into a “tick-tick-tick” followed by a low-pitched rattle. This male preferred to sit in his food dish and eat food when it was replaced, whereas the ‘alpha’ was constantly walking around. In this way they truly became little pet katydids, for a while.

Unfortunately I knew this had to end soon. On February 7th I found the ‘alpha’ lying dead on the bottom of his enclosure. With his death my room became a lot quieter. When the heater was off, the soft rattling of the dark male could be heard (it’s a loud heater!). I fully expected him to die soon after his companion, but once again I underestimated the little katydids. Throughout February he continued to sing, and soon I started hoping for what seemed like the impossible: for him to make it into March. For fear of stressing him out, I didn’t attempt to handle him any more and tried to make cleaning his cage as stress-less a procedure as possible. He became very, very docile towards the end. It was almost as if he knew what to do when I picked up the food dish, as he would step off it and wait on the substrate, climbing back on to eat once food had been replaced. On the last week of February I checked him constantly. Everything seemed normal and he continued to sing.

February 28th. I noticed that he had not sung all day. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but he had been singing constantly for the past several days. I went to bed hoping to god that he would be alive in the morning.

March 1. I sprung out of bed and quickly peered into his container. Aha! He was indeed alive! It was an unbelievable feat that this katydid had pulled off, surviving into March when by all accounts he should have died off in October or early November. But something was amiss. He wasn’t sitting in the food dish where he usually hung out, he was standing on top of the substrate. I opened the container and gently nudged him. He walked forward a few steps and then stopped. I could immediately tell that he was dying. I replaced his food and guided him back to the food dish. He was not interested but sat there anyway. I went to class, and when I came back he was standing on the substrate again. When I went to sleep that night, he was slumped in the corner, but still alive.

March 2, 2017. During the night he had quietly departed the land of the living. When I picked his lifeless body out of the enclosure, one hind leg kicked, a reflex muscle response. It was his last movement.

Truly, it was a privilege to care for these katydids. When I come across their species again I know that where one might see a delicate insect, there is a strong-willed, unbelievably tough little soul (I know I’m personifying but can you blame me?). And as this story will attest, the black-legged meadow katydid makes for a splendid singing companion that will outlive all your other favorite singers.

IMG_1087.jpg

The dark male nigripes, wings raised in song and tarsus raised in cleaning, on my hand.

What’s that in my spinach?

IMG_6826.JPG

A speck on the spinach leaf…

One morning as I was preparing my lunch before school, I noticed something attached to a spinach leaf. It looked like a small tan rounded egg of some sort. Closer inspection revealed something very funny–an aphid mummy! These are the hollowed out exoskeletons of aphids, created by the larva of a parasite that had devoured the aphid’s internal organs. I was familiar with aphid mummies, having seen them many a time on aphid-infested plants outdoors, but to find one on a piece of spinach from the market was worth a good laugh. I tossed it in a vial and headed off to school.

IMG_6828.JPG

Aphid mummy on spinach. The only locality information I have is from the packaging, which simply stated “Product of USA”. So this aphid and its associated parasite could be from almost anywhere in the country.

Later that day I decided to get a few shots of the aphid mummy. As I was photographing it I noticed that there was no hole in it, and there was a suspicious-looking dark area inside. What if, despite all odds, there was still life inside? I decided to keep it on the off chance that the parasite might still be inside. Turns out I didn’t have long to wait. The very next day I was excited to spot a 2-mm long wasp walking around in the container. As expected, the aphid mummy now had a large circular hole cut in it where the wasp had emerged. I photographed the wasp and posted it to BugGuide, where Ross Hill quickly determined it as a member of the subfamily Aphidiinae (Hymenoptera: Braconidae), which specialize in parasitizing aphids.

IMG_6878.JPG

The resulting aphidiine wasp.

Never doubt that insects are all around us, even in your food!

A tough new resident of NY

IMG_9357.JPG

Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. A striking animal with a distinctive red and white face and dark legs. (Clymer, NY)

One afternoon in early September of this year, I found myself situated in a thick stand of red-osier dogwood slightly taller than myself. For the past 30 minutes I had been wading through first goldenrod, then brambles, then dogwood, guided by my ears. I had heard a very enticing call and I was determined to find the singer, but this was getting to be too much. With sweat pouring down my neck, bramble thorns pricking my arms, and ants scurrying across my shirt, I strained my eyes to see through the maze of branches. The mystery caller was right above me, repeating himself quickly every few seconds – a fast “tick-tick-tick-bzzzzzzzz…tick-tick-tick-buzzzzzzz” –yet I could not see him. If this was who I thought it was, he should be quite colorful and obvious, and I could not figure out why I was having so much trouble. Suddenly I saw a hair-thin antenna flick out from behind a twig, then flick back. My heart skipped a beat, and I carefully grasped the dogwood, pulling downward. Once I was within range, I waved my hand behind the twig. A gorgeous multicolored katydid darted into view. “Gotcha”, I thought. I had fallen victim to the “meadow dance” that meadow katydids often perform to hide from predators, but now that he had revealed himself, he made an easy catch

Once I wrangled the katydid into a vial, I confirmed what I had suspected he was: Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. One of the more colorful meadow katydids in the north, nigripes has a wide range in the central U.S. and is mainly found in wetland areas. They are also found in the Chesapeake Bay drainage, where they are likely introduced by humans (first collected there in the early 1900’s). Here they sometimes hybridize with a closely related species, Orchelimum pulchellum, whose range is mainly along the east coast. The locality where I had just found my katydid was Chautauqua county in far western New York. I had never seen records of nigripes from New York, so I was quite excited and determined to collect more. It took some time, and although the rest were a bit easier than the first individual, it was still a lot of work. I eventually managed to capture 5 males (didn’t see a single female). Judging by the amount of calling I was hearing, there were likely hundreds more in the area, but it was starting to get dark and I had to take my leave.

I later contacted Dr. Leo Shapiro at the University of Maryland, who has worked extensively with Orchelimum nigripes. He confirmed my ID and informed me that the species has recently been detected in northern Ohio and southern Ontario, and although they had not been recorded from New York before, my discovery is not a surprise and may represent a natural range extension along Lake Erie.

IMG_9180.JPG

Nigripes calling in situ at the collection site.

I set up my new critters in containers. Meadow katydids I have kept in the past have fed well on carrot slices, and these katydids were no different. One died almost immediately for some reason, but the others accommodated quickly. Within a day or two of setup, they began to sing. And man did they sing. Day and night they belted out their ticking and whirring calls, sending me to sleep every evening and greeting me each morning. When I traveled to Mississippi in early October, I gave most of my pets to a friend to care for, but I left my 4 nigripes alone with some extra food since I didn’t want to burden my poor friend with that many hungry mouths to feed. I was not too attached to them at the time so it didn’t matter to me then if the nigripes lived or died. To my surprise when I returned, they were still alive; one even sang a few times while I cleaned up and organized material from the trip! Within a few hours of my replacing their food, all four started up singing again. I realized that I was dealing with a tougher species than I had reckoned.

Although I had a taste of their tenacity, come November I figured that the end was nigh. Even the toughest of singing Orthoptera usually don’t make it past late November in the northeast. One by one, the other singers in my arsenal died off, but the nigripes remained. I was shocked after final exams when the time came to head home from Cornell for winter break and they were still singing. As if to prove their point, I heard a few scattered songs break out from the back of the car during the trip home. Once home, I revised my estimate: surely they’d die off in December! But again I was wrong–one did die, but the other three kept on singing. I am watching them clamber about in their containers as I write this. No doubt their home in Chautauqua county is quite devoid of the songs of summer. I am awed at the ability of this little katydid species to survive far past their normal lifespan. Only once before have I had an orthopteran species that normally dies off in the fall survive so long into the winter–last year I cared for a male Microcentrum rhombifolium (greater anglewinged katydid) until his death on January 16th. This was astonishing in its own right, but if my nigripes survive for just one more week, they will make into February! Fingers crossed.

IMG_0535.JPG

One of my three remaining nigripes having a bite to eat.

Rearing North America’s largest moth

IMG_9614.JPG

Caterpillar of the cecropia moth, Hyalophora cecropia (Kennebunk, ME)

Almost immediately after finding the northeast’s rarest waterscorpion, my dad alerted me to a “really cool caterpillar” just a few steps away. When he pointed it out to me I was stunned–a cecropia moth caterpillar! An iconic species, Hyalophora cecropia is considered to be the largest moth in North America, with an equally large caterpillar. But they are not just large–they are absolutely beautiful in all stages. Caterpillars are plump green monsters bristling with red, yellow, and blue scoli (knobs with spikes), and the adults are an unbelievable mixture of reds, browns, pinks, and creams, one of the most charismatic moths out there and a perfect example to point to when people say that moths aren’t as beautiful as butterflies. I had only seen three adults in my life and never a caterpillar, so I was pretty dang excited about this one.

IMG_6862.JPG

The resulting moth.

After I had taken the caterpillar home and photographed it, I set up an enclosure with lots of food. The ‘pillar was originally on speckled alder, but I found that it would accept maple as well. The next day the leaves were gone, converted into a pile of frass at the bottom of the container, as any self-respecting caterpillar tends to do. This continued for several weeks, with daily replacing of the food and emptying of the waste a necessity for the caterpillar’s survival. Strange as this may sound, I found the frass pellets to be little works of art, intricately marked with lines and spots. Unfortunately I never thought to take a photo. Eventually the caterpillar pupated in a huge baggy cocoon, and into the garage it went to overwinter.

IMG_6804.JPG

What a wondrous sight to wake up to!

One lovely day next June, I found that the adult moth had emerged. The first thing I did upon seeing her hanging upside down in the rearing cage might seem a bit odd: I bent down and sniffed her. Something I have experienced with every cecropia moth I have encountered is that they smell very strongly of peanut butter! I initially thought this was just the female’s pheromones, but I have smelled it on males as well. It was a miracle that the caterpillar had not been parasitized by flies or wasps, as many such large caterpillars often are. My moth was a female, as evidenced by her plump abdomen full of eggs and her slender antennae (males have large feathery antennae to detect the pheromones of the female). Cecropia moth adults have no functional mouthparts and only live long enough to reproduce, so the next day my dad and I took her back to where we found the caterpillar and released her deep in the bushes, where she hopefully attracted a male and laid eggs to bring about the next generation of these spectacular insects.

IMG_6822.JPG

Detail of the abdomen.

Nepa – a plain-colored but rare hemipteran gem

IMG_9645.JPG

Two nymphs of Nepa apiculata (Kennebunk, ME)

I gently scooped the small brown shape out of the water. At first I thought I had grabbed the wrong object–wasn’t this just a bit of decaying leaf? But then slender legs extended, eyes became visible, and I could make out its true colors. This “bit of old muck” was in fact one of North America’s rarest species in the family Nepidae, the water scorpions. The name is a bit inaccurate, as these are not scorpions at all, but really true bugs (Hemiptera) much more closely related to giant water bugs and stink bugs. Water scorpions are aquatic predators, using a long breathing tube on the ends of their abdomens for gas exchange and large raptorial (grabbing) forelegs for snatching prey. There are only about 13 species in the U.S. and 10 of those are in one common, widespread genus, Ranatra, the members of which are so thin as to resemble walkingsticks. Another two species are in the genus Curicta, restricted to a few localities in Texas and Arizona. The final species, Nepa apiculata, was the one I had just found. It is widely distributed in the eastern U.S. but is rather uncommonly seen, as evidenced by the paucity of photos on BugGuide and other websites. Strangely enough, Nepa is the most common water scorpion genus in Europe, whereas Ranatra is rare.

IMG_1397.JPG

The adult Nepa

Nepa apiculata is a rather awkward little animal that seems, at least to me, to be ill suited to its own lifestyle (but they continue to exist, so they must be doing something right). They are not good swimmers and if placed in a jar of water without something to climb up to acquire air from the surface, will soon drown (as I found out the hard way). Thus they seem restricted to very shallow water with lots of vegetation. The locality where I saw my first Nepa, and in fact the only place I’ve ever found them, is a large pond with extensive shallows. I had been visiting this pond for several years and never come across them, but after finding my first one I was alerted to their presence and later found them again in the same spot a few times. I found adults to be a bit more mobile and active than nymphs, but I never had them try to attack small insects I tried to feed to them. Adults have wings but are apparently loathe to use them–I certainly saw no evidence that they were willing to fly. I found them to be rather comical animals, with their funny little heads and their fierce looking forelimbs which they did not even want to use.

IMG_1395.JPG

Nepa face. Note the raptorial forelegs and the rostrum (beak) used for sucking the insides out of prey.

Bush katydids

IMG_6800.JPG

A male fork-tailed bush katydid perched on a birch (ha!) twig (Sanbornville, NH).

The katydids of the genus Scudderia, often known as bush katydids, are among the most commonly encountered katydids in the U.S. Legions of photos of the small, colorfully banded nymphs are posted to BugGuide and iNaturalist every spring, and images of the adults are equally abundant. The habits of Scudderia are generally similar, with the majority of species living in deciduous shrubby areas and feeding on broadleafed foliage and flowers (of course, there are exceptions). Eggs are laid inside leaves between the two layers, a most interesting sight to see. Species in the genus are very similar, and best told apart by the shape of the male’s supra-anal plate. There are 8 species recorded from the U.S, six of which I have seen. The two that I am still on the lookout for, S. cuneata and S. mexicana, have restricted ranges (the far southeast and southwest, respectively), while the other species are more widespread. Here I will briefly discuss the species I have seen with some notes on what I have observed.

s_furcata.jpg

Scudderia “gimme a high five” furcata (Bear, DE)

By far the most ubiquitous bush katydid is the fork-tailed, Scudderia furcata. The only species found coast to coast and in every U.S. state, this guy could turn up in most habitats. I have seen them in forests, shrubby meadows, tall grass fields, swamps, marshes, suburban habitats, gardens, and sometimes at lights. The species is named for the large, inflated supra-anal plate that is shaped like a horseshoe. The ovipositor is almost always brown in my observation. This is the Scudderia that I usually see survive longest into the fall; I even found one enterprising individual in early November once! He was browned with age, but still managed to call a few times: a single “tsip” repeated once or twice every 10 minutes or so. This obviously makes them a real challenge to track down by song.

s_fasciata.jpg

Scudderia fasciata (South Berwick, ME)

The species most easily confused with the fork-tailed is S. fasciata, the treetop bush katydid. Found in the northeast from Michigan to Maine, this animal has an almost identical call and supra-anal plate to S. furcata, but differs strikingly in habitat and coloration. The treetop katydid is found almost exclusively in canopies of coniferous trees, and fittingly has dark striping on the wings to blend in with conifer needles, along with a wine-colored belly and ovipositor. I have only seen an individual once in real habitat; however they regularly show up at lights. I wrote about an interesting incident with one of these creatures here.

s_curvicauda.jpg

Scudderia curvicauda (Ithaca, NY)

Scudderia curvicauda, the curve-tailed bush katydid, is a large, widespread eastern species. They tend to inhabit open meadows, often with goldenrod. I don’t come across them too often but when I do, they are plentiful. The call is a series of 3-4 tsips, repeated every few minutes. They are named for the male supra-anal plate which resembles a whale’s fluke from above. The female’s ovipositor is usually green in my experience.

s_pistillata.jpg

Scudderia pistillata (Alton Bay, NH)

The most northern of the Scudderia is the broad-winged bush katydid, S. pistillata. Aptly named, it is the only bush katydid with the outer wing length only three times its width. Its supra-anal plate is very similar to that of S. curvicauda, but subtly different–see the photos. I tend to see this species in wet goldenrod meadows, typically rather early in the season (July). The broad-winged bush katydid is notable for its ability to “count”. With each successive song, a calling male adds one or two buzzes. Females have been shown to prefer males who can “count” the highest.

s_texensis.jpg

Scudderia texensis (Derby, IN)

We next come to the large Scudderia texensis, perhaps misnamed Texas bush katydid, which is actually distributed across the entire eastern U.S. Supposedly very common in many habitats, this is a species which I saw for the first time this year, in southern Indiana. I recognized it immediately by its distinctive supra-anal plate, which has a small tooth in the middle. I have been looking for this animal for years, checking every Scudderia that I come across, and never found it in a lot of likely habitats. Perhaps I am simply missing something, but I think this animal is a lot less common than the range maps suggest.

s_septentrionalis.jpg

Scudderia septentrionalis (Ithaca, NY)

Finally we have Scudderia septentrionalis, the Northern bush katydid. Here is a supreme irony: septentrionalis is a supposedly rare species that I see very commonly, while texensis is a supposedly common species that I have only seen once. The northern bush katydid is distinctive for its lack of a supra-anal plate, having instead a blunt, truncated end to the abdomen. This is a species of the high deciduous canopy, with the most complex song of all the bush katydids: a series of ticks followed by “tzee-tzee-tzee-tzee”. I was hearing this species up in the trees long before I knew what I was listening to. A lot of the literature mentions this species as extremely rare; indeed, never have I come across one in habitat, but this is the Scudderia that is most strongly attracted to lights, and this is how you find them. I have been at lights where there were over 30 individuals jumping and flying and bouncing off of everything. To see septentrionalis you have to time your hunt just right: they have a short window of emergence, usually lasting from mid July to early August.

IMG_4270.JPG

A female curve-tailed bush katydid cleaning her ovipositor (Old Orchard Beach, ME).

scudderias.jpg

A collage of the various Scudderia supra-anal plates.

Say my name and I will show myself

A quick Dipteran interlude from the Orthoptera.

While returning to Ithaca from a trip to Mississippi with Jason Dombroskie, we stopped at a Subway restaurant in Tennessee. Over dinner, we mused over the fact that neither of us had ever seen Hermetia illucens, the black soldier fly, despite it being a common, widespread insect that shows up in Cornell’s Insect Diagnostic Lab with regularity. This species is a compost feeder and is considered a beneficial insect as it breaks down compost and also outcompetes the house fly, Musca domestica, which can spread many diseases (Hermetia is completely innocuous). Jason went to the bathroom, and came back saying “You’ll never guess what I found”. It was, of course, a black soldier fly.

IMG_0287.JPG

Hermetia illucens, the black soldier fly (White Pine, TN).

Moral of the story: keep saying the name of the insect/plant/mushroom/bird/whatever organism that you want to see, and sooner or later (sometimes very much sooner!) that organism will show up in your life.

IMG_0289.JPG

Hermetia illucens.