Dandelion Salad

Winter hung around for a long time but spring finally found its way to our corner of the forest.

This past week yellow appeared on the menu for these red and black wood ants.

There are about 21 species of wood ants in Alberta. As the name suggests they live in or near the edge of wooded areas, building large hills from forest litter and soil.

Although dandelions caught the attention of these ants, poplar buds are even more popular. They’re like the main course to the dandelion appetizer.

This leaf bud hasn’t even opened yet, but the ants have already moved their “herd” of aphids into position. The aphids feed on the sap, then excrete a sweet sticky “syrup” that the ants eat.

This thistle gives an idea of how big well-tended aphid herds can get.

Wood ant Formica spp.

Mystery Solved

In an earlier post I pondered what lay within a silky tent strung between segments of chicken wire. A butterfly larva? Or as one reader opined, perhaps a paralyzed caterpillar, soon to be devoured by a spider?

While I wasn’t looking, the caterpillar — which was very much alive and not on anyone’s menu — continued to spin its magic and metamorphosed into a shiny cocoon.

A Lac of Interest

Because creosote is so common and grows literally everywhere here on the desert, I often tend to overlook it. My mistake.

The other day it surprised me. As I passed by yet another bush of same-old-same-old, I spotted several lumps on two of the branches. I was stumped. They were hard and dry and asymmetrical. What were they?

It took a chance encounter with a docent at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum to find the answer. This was the work of lac insects. (If shellac comes to mind, it’s because this insect is related to the one from which that varnish and sealant is produced.)

The work of lac insects

The tiny lac insects suck up sugary sap from the creosote, using some for food and eliminating the rest. As the sap hardens it forms a natural protection against predators and the weather.

Although I checked the two branches carefully I couldn’t see any live insects.  Nor could I see any ants, who sometimes protect lac colonies from predators, “milking” them like cows, just as they do with aphids.

The lesson for me? Don’t ignore what’s right under my nose. 🙂

Lac insect   Tachardiella larreae
Creosote   Larrea tridentata

Bottoms Up

The size, colour and speed of the pinacate (pin-uh-KAW-tay) beetle make it easy to spot on the desert.

Unfortunately this one was moving so fast I could hardly keep it in focus. So I placed a twig in its path to slow it down.

It immediately went into a defensive headstand. The first time I saw this I was startled. This time I was pleased — it stopped moving so I could finally focus on it in the dying light.


Like the small milkweed bug, pinacates rely on chemical protection from predators. But they take it one step further. Their bottoms-up stance is a warning. Ignore it and you get a blast of apparently noxious-smelling chemicals. I say apparently because I’ve never tried to provoke one to the point that it let loose with the spray. It has worse enemies than me to look out for.

While the spray deters some predators, the pinacate is no match for the grasshopper mouse. It grabs the beetle with its paws, stuffs the bottom end into the sand and begins dining at the top end, stopping short of the nasty gland at the other end.

Pinacate beetle/Clown beetle/Stink beetle   Eleodes spp  (probably E. obscurus)

You Are What You Eat

If the adage holds true, then if you eat poison, you are poison.

Small milkweed bugs eat mainly milkweed plants whose sap contains poisons and latex. Decorating yourself with bright colours lets potential “diners” know they best choose another item on the menu if they don’t want to get sick.

The bug’s colours are quite distinctive — the white spots on the black wing tips caught my attention first. Sort of like eye sockets in a skull. Also noticeable is the orangey-red “X” on its back that doesn’t quite meet in the middle.

I found this bug sleeping on a globemallow leaf one cool morning recently. Nearby was a rambling milkweed plant, leafless and flowerless, its numerous thin stems twisted around each other like a rope. Little shelter for a bug overnight so perhaps that’s why it climbed onto something more substantial.

Milkweed bugs are true bugs (not beetles) with piercing/sucking mouthparts. Milkweed sap contains latex (a whitish gum-like goo) and poisons. The bug pierces the “skin” of the plants to reach the poisonous sap. Once it removes its mouthparts, the latex oozes into the hole where it dries, effectively sealing the hole. Such a tidy eater.

Small milkweed bug  (aka Seed bug)  Lygaeus kalmii
Globemallow   Sphaeralcea spp.


Most insects avoid us or scuttle out of sight. Not these guys. White-spotted sawyers are big, noisy and show no fear. It’s unnerving when one flies right at you.

This female landed on the steps about an arm’s length away from me. She paused, then opened her hard wing covers (aka elytras) and unfolded her sturdy wings.

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Wing covers open, wings extended. Notice the bent wing tip.

With soft clicking and chuffing sounds she became air-borne again — doing little touch-and-goes on the steps like a novice pilot, each hop bringing her closer to me.

I blinked first: I moved. She ignored me and eventually disappeared into the grass at the end of the step.

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White-spotted sawyers reach body lengths of 20 mm or more (about 0.75 in).

Should you encounter such a magnificent beetle and wish to know whether it’s male or female (assuming you haven’t flown off in a fright), check out the antennae length.

Females, like the one shown here, have antennae about the same length or slightly longer than their bodies.

Males (for whom size seems to matter) have antennae 2 to 3 times their body length. I assure you, you’ll definitely know it’s a male.

White-spotted (spruce) sawyer   Monochamus scutellatus



Stop, sit, look is a mantra that serves me well.

I was huddled near the end of a rotting log when I spotted a brightly patterned bug just a few inches away. This was quickly followed by a good-grief-what-the-heck? moment when I realized it was “attached” to a large caterpillar. What followed next was fascinating.

The piercing mouthparts of this immature stink bug had seized hold of one of the caterpillar’s hind “legs” (known as prolegs to bugsters) and it was feeding on the still-living larva.

The caterpillar was strong. It pulled that stink bug several inches across the log face. Despite its best efforts, however, it couldn’t break free.

The stink bug’s grip was stronger. In fact, several times the caterpillar swung loose, dangling in air. The stink bug never lost its hold on the log or the larva.

Although the larva was still alive when I left, the end was inevitable — it was lunch on legs for this young spined soldier bug.

The spined soldier bug goes through 5 stages (instars, for the biologically inclined) between egg and adult. Each stage looks quite different than the others. Turns out I found the third instar.

If you’d like to see its life cycle in photos, check out this link at the University of Florida.

Spined soldier bug  Podisus maculiventris
Unidentified butterfly larva

Egg Case

The Tortrix moth infestation that occurred this spring was of almost biblical proportions. Many of the aspen forests were completely denuded by the ravenous caterpillars (aka larvae).

They pupated next, then after a short respite, the adult moths appeared. Thousands of them. And of course, their main goal was mating and egg laying, which they did in grand fashion.

In fact, so intense was the drive to lay eggs, they did so in the most unusual places. We discovered egg cases, like the one above, on the windows of the house, on the siding and on the vehicles.

Many of these eggs never hatched. The ones on the south-facing windows, for example, simply got too hot. But not before some activity occurred.

The egg cases were all about the same size as this one — 1.3 cm or so long (0.5 in). The original egg case was a lime green — some of that is still visible. I’m assuming it was plant material to feed the newly hatched larvae.

The comma-shaped figures are the newly hatched black-headed larvae. Some of the cells are empty — perhaps they survived?

Mother Nature’s Natural History Show is a wonder. Glad I caught this episode.

Large aspen tortrix   Choristoneura conflictana

Caught in the Rain

The expression “drowned rat” came to mind when I found this bedraggled bumblebee.

Over the last two days more than 5 cm (about 2 in) of rain has fallen in sudden heavy downpours. Not everyone found shelter before the storms hit.

Its usual soft fuzzy hair is plastered flat, exposing the shiny black exoskeleton — a new view of a familiar garden visitor.

A bad hair day? Definitely.

Bumblebee   Bombus spp.