The Milbs Are Back

Most years mourning cloak butterflies signal spring’s arrival. This year it’s Milbert’s tortoiseshells.

The first one appeared a few days ago, while snow was still the predominant ground cover. The next day there were two. Warm temps and sunshine took a big whack out of the snow piles, just what the Milbs needed.

These ones were born last August and spent the winter sheltered beneath loose bark or in hollow logs. Their body fluids contain alcohols and glycerols — like antifreeze for your car — which keeps them from freezing when temperatures plummet and food isn’t available.

These winter-hardy butterflies lay their eggs on stinging nettles, the exclusive food of their caterpillars. We have a patch of nettles alongside one corner of our deck — I’ll watch for them there in the coming weeks.

Milbert’s tortoiseshell   Aglais milberti

What Are They Thinking?

We’ve had cold nights, cool days, ice on the windshield and the deck, several small snowfalls and now this: a large hatch of moths.

What the heck is going on? This ain’t the right season to be flying around.

Or is it?

The moths gather by the dozen at night on our uncurtained windows. During the day they flutter and flop around the yard, along the gravel road and in the sunbeams in the woods. Getting clear photos of them has been a challenge as they never really stop for more than a moment. They’re in a hurry.

Bruce spanworm moth

Turns out they’re doing exactly what they should be doing at this time of year. They’re Bruce spanworms and they’re “late season” moths. No kidding. Seems the drop in temperature is what kicks off the mating season.

Another quirky characteristic — all the ones with wings are males. Females are wingless. This frenzy has been going on for a couple of weeks. There’s no time to eat, only to mate and lay eggs that will hatch next spring.

Get busy guys.

Bruce spanworm moth

Bruce spanworm   Operophtera bruceata  


So. I’m working on my laptop when this largish beetle crawls down my sleeve and onto my left hand. I immediately stop typing.

First thought: Is it going to bite?

Second thought: Can I get a picture before it does?

I hold my beetle hand steady, push back my chair, snatch the camera with my other hand and head for the door.

Outside I lower my still unbitten hand to the deck and let the hitchhiker crawl off. It sets out along the deck at a good clip. It’s obviously on a mission and not interested in posing.

Known as jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles, they have been on my I-hope-to-find-one-of-these list for some time. I could hardly believe my good luck that this one had actually found me.


Larvae of this species — known as flat-head or flatheaded borers — live inside spruce or pine and feed on dead or dying wood. Depending on the species, adult jewel beetles eat leaves, nectar or pollen.

A beautiful bite-free beetle. Come back any time.

Spotted-belly buprestid   Buprestis maculativentris

An Afternoon sans Snakes

In town the other day with time to spare I climbed up Snake Hill. Once home to several garter snake dens, the hill hosts few if any snakes now but perhaps on such a warm day I might find some.

I visited the spot where I found the gorgeous clematis early in June. Now the seeds heads are unfurling, like mop-haired cartoon characters, the feathery plumes just beginning to show.

Blue clematis seed head

Blue clematis

Next I set off on one of the trails that crisscross the hill to see what I might see. On my climb I found a couple of cow parsnips. On the pungent white flowers insect sex was, so to speak, in full bloom.

Yellow velvet beetles

The participants were yellow velvet beetles aka flower longhorns. A new beetle to me. They were so busy making little beetles I couldn’t get a good photo of the pile on, but when the heat of the moment passed several quieted down enough to have their picture taken.

Yellow velvet beetle on cow parsnip

What I took to be pollen on this beetle turned out to be very fine yellow hairs. Its species name, chrysocoma, means gold-haired. Good choice.

Walking back to the main trail I spotted a grasshopper. Another find. Not an adult yet (no wings — just stubby bits that foreshadow what’s to come). Best guess? A two-striped grasshopper. The eyes are gorgeous, warm and brown-filled with tiny tan spots.

Two-striped grasshopper

Further along the trail another cow parsnip and another new beetle — a round-necked longhorn. Several of them of varying sizes were wandering around the flowers. No sex this time (but perhaps I came late to the party).

Round-necked longhorn beetle

The striking pattern, reminiscent of a sad face, made it easy to ID. In side view you can see the rounded, almost hump-like neck which gives it its name.

Round-necked longhorn beetle

The black and yellow colours, reminiscent of wasps, means it’s sometimes mistaken for a wasp. But no worry. The adults don’t sting or bite, preferring pollen and nectar.

I found no snakes on my rambles. Still, it was a lovely afternoon on the hill. Gotta do that more often. 🙂

Blue clematis   Clematis verticellaris var. columbiana
Cow parsnip   Heracleum lanatum
Round-necked longhorn   Clytus ruricola
Two-striped grasshopper   Melanoplus bivittatus
Yellow velvet beetle/Flower longhorn   Lepturobosca chrysocoma
(formerly Cosmosalia chrysocoma)

How the Bumblebee Lost Her Buzz

I spied a very quiet bumblebee sitting near one of the lupines yesterday. Odd behaviour for midday.

I looked closer. Ooops. The bumblebee had stumbled into the clutches of a large goldenrod crab spider.


Crab spiders are ambush predators. They wait for insects to visit flowers in search of pollen and honey.

They blend in well which makes them successful hunters. Using pigments in their body they can even change colour, from white (often with pink stripes or blotches) to yellow and back again. According to the Encyclopedia of Life it takes 10-25 days to turn from white to yellow but only about 6 days to turn from yellow to white.

So: Bumblebee arrives. Spider grabs it with her outstretched legs. Injects venom through her fangs. Paralyzes bumblebee.

Predator and prey

Once the prey is subdued the spider injects digestive enzymes into (or onto) the victim’s body, liquefying the insides. Then it slurps up the liquid. Nothing like a high-powered  protein shake for lunch.

Death among the flowers

How long did it take from start to finish? Hard to say. When I first discovered the bumblebee she was pointing head-first into the flower. When I checked again about 30 minutes later the spider had manoeuvred the bee around so that its head was pointing more to the front. Was this so she could better access the body fluids?

Manoeuvring her prey

Later still I discovered that the spider had finished her meal. I checked for bumblebee remains — in the flower stalk, on the ground, among the leaves. Nothing. Where did it go? A mystery.

I checked the lupine again today. The crab spider was still there. A moment later I stood transfixed as a fat bumblebee landed on the flowers, just petals away from the spider-in-hiding. Would she catch this one too?

Too close for comfort

Luckily for the bee she buzzed off to another stalk. As for the spider? She crawled out in full view, stretching out in the sun, legs poised, waiting …

The watchful waiter

Goldenrod crab spider   Misumena vatia
Bumblebee   Bombus spp.

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.



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

Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid

I don’t get to see the underside of life very often. Bugs and butterflies don’t take kindly to being upended.

Finding this large aspen tortrix moth on my window was a perfect opportunity to check out the undercarriage. Quite different from the bland topside view — this is right out of a sci/fi movie.

This spring its larvae devastated huge swaths of aspen poplar, eating all the leaves until limbs and twigs were bare. Their silk festooned the woods, draping over everything below, right down to the forest floor.

The trees are slowly recovering and the moths are disappearing. Cycles within cycles.

Large aspen tortrix   Choristoneura conflictana

Pinto Beetle

The wild roses have been prolific this year and most of them have at least one or two small longhorn beetles eating the pollen.

One day a new kid showed up. I nicknamed it “the pinto beetle” for its striking colours, intending at some point to ID it.

I found a lead on Pete Hillman’s nature photography blog.

His photo looked very similar, except his beetle was yellow, mine was creamy white. But he got me going in the right direction.

Today I went hunting again. Bingo! I have a name:  Judolia montivagans, the flower beetle. Quite a mouthful for such a little guy. 🙂

Flower beetle   Judolia monitvagans