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Insects create the biological foundation for all terrestrial ecosystems. They cycle nutrients, pollinate plants, disperse seeds, maintain soil structure and fertility, control populations of other organisms, and provide a major food source for other species. “Insects pollinate 90% of our flowering plants. Without insects, we’d lose these plants, which collapses the food web,” said the University of Delaware’s Doug Tallamy. “We’d lose amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and even some freshwater fish.”
Orb-weaver spiders are a large family of spiders with over 3500 species in the world. Orb weavers are very docile, non-aggressive spiders that will flee at the first sign of a threat (typically they will run or drop off the web). They are not dangerous to people & pets and are actually quite beneficial because they will catch and eat a lot of pest-type insects. They are the most common group of builders of spiral wheel-shaped webs often found in gardens, fields, and forests. These webs are used to catch their food. They do not hunt like other spiders. “Orb” can in English mean “circular”, hence the English name of the group. This feat of engineering was along the PenDel trail. Photo by Ellen Scavia.
If you find yourself on a sandy trail in the White Clay Creek Preserve look for cone-shaped divets in the ground as pictured. These are ingenious ant traps made by the larvae of an antlion. Ants walking the rim of the hole, fall into the cone and are eaten by the antlion larvae who hide under the sand. They are also called doodlebugs for the strange doodle patterns they make in the sand.
The last dance of summer. Did you see it? Whirligig Beetles, a family of water beetles that swim on the surface of White Clay Creek, was seen to dance wildly in silvery circles. Their position in the dance is determined by a number of factors; hunger, sex, water temperature, age, and stress level. These positions carry trade-offs. For example, the hungry go to outside of the group where there is less competition for food but a greater danger of predation. Here’s their fascinating dance set to music
Gracing our trails in August is the buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), It is distinguished by two eyespots on the upper side of each of its forewings and hindwings. Its range extends from southern Canada and the United States to southern Mexico. Adults feed primarily on the nectar of flowers, such as those of chicory, knapweed, dogbane, and aster.
Moths are under-appreciated members of the Preserve’s ecosystem. They are pollinators and sources of food for bats. To shield themselves from bat echolocation, some moths wear an acoustic cloak of invisibility- using sound-absorbing scales on their wings to avoid being detected. Other moths are capable of producing their own ultrasonic clicks to jam a bat’s sonar. Leopard moth and Walnut sphinx.
Here’s a charismatic insect found in the Preserve and hopefully in your yards as well: A lightning bug or firefly? Actually, it is neither a fly nor a bug but belongs to a family of beetles. Its ability to emit light is made possible by the enzyme Luciferase. The light in adults helps them to attract mates. In the larval stage, it acts as a warning to predators “Don’t eat me I taste bad!~”. The lifespan of the adult is only 2 months long, however, the larva lives about a year under tree bark or in the ground before turning into a beetle. The Pennsylvania firefly was designated as the official state insect in 1974. It is one of a few dozen species of fireflies found in the state. We celebrate them for their ability to “transform a midsummer night into a fairyland of tiny brilliant twinkling lights.”
Common along the White Clay Creek and other slow-moving streams and rivers is the iridescent Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly. It is often perched on low shrubbery in sunlit openings in the forest canopy. The male body is a stunning metallic green or bluish, while the female is black with a conspicuous white spot on the tip of its wings. They are not strong flyers. The adults flutter short distances like a butterfly, so they are easy to get close to for a photograph. We welcome them to the Preserve as they prey on mosquito, aphids, gnats and a variety of flies. In turn, they are eaten by birds, turtles, frogs, fish, and bats. They stay close to the creek because after mating the female lays eggs in the stems of soft aquatic plants. These eggs hatch into nymphs that develop in the water. Sssshhh! listen carefully, the males and females communicate with each other using their wings. They make a faintly audible sound by snapping their wings together!
Swamp milk-weed beetle
Red-spotted purple-scaled butterfly
- Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States
- Nature’s Best Hope, by Doug Tallamy
- The Living Landscape, by Doug Tallamy
- Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America
- Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David Wagner
- Pollinators of Native Plants, by Heather Holm
- Attracting Native Pollinators – Xerces Society