Photo from You: Insect Identification

Last week we received a photo of a very bizarre looking insect from Melissa who lives in the Seattle area. I had an idea of what it was when I opened the file, but it was a bit of a head scratcher!

For the most part, all insects in a particular order share the same distinguishing characteristics and it’s easy (for me) to tell what group they belong to. Grasshoppers look like grasshoppers, butterflies like butterflies, wasps like wasps, etc. But there are some exceptions to the rule. Some moths mimic beetles, some flies mimic bees, and some insects just look like 3 different things at once! This was the case with the bug Melissa found.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

It is a very alien-like creature called a plume moth. Plume moths do not look like the typical moth or butterfly. But then again, since there are about 250,000 species (10 times the amount of butterflies) of highly variable insects known as moths, there really isn’t a typical moth.

At first glance, a plume moth resembles a crane fly. You know those large clumsy flies you see in the spring, whose legs fall off if you look at them wrong. They have very thin wings that are divided into lobes. The forewings typically consist of two lobes and the hindwings have 3.  At rest, many species hold their wings straight with the lobes folded together, making them look like a “T.” There are 154 species of these moths found in north America, making species identification very difficult and often requiring a microscope. The adults are quite inconsequential and can go relatively unnnoticed. They’re often mistaken for a bit of dead grass! This allows them to be easily overlooked by potential predators and most other things.

Luckily Melissa noticed this one enough to snap a picture so we could learn about this cool insect. The caterpillars are the most significant life stage and can be pests on some crops such as artichokes and ornamentals such as geraniums and snapdragons. On the other hand, they have been used as biological control to combat invasive plants such as West Indian lantana.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

Even though I’m an entomologist, there are a million described species of insects, most of which I’ve never seen. I always love the challenge of identifying different species that people find in their particular corners of the world. Then I can add another species to the list of ones I know about. And by reading, you can too!

I encourage everyone to spend some time outside observing the smaller things that are out there. If you find something that interests you, snap a picture, and send it in to blogadmin@hmns.org. We love to receive these kinds of queries! We’ll identify and feature your bug in our blog.

Until next time, happy bug watching!

Flickr Photo of the Month: Butterflies! [Feb. 2011]

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_MG_8184 by mkerkstra on Flickr.

Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS, and when we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we share one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we have a reminder that the time of ridiculously chilly weather is almost past us this year, from Michelle Kerkstra, mkerkstra on Flickr. I’m always particularly impressed by the gorgeous butterfly shots that show up in the Flickr pool, as these stunning insects are also notoriously twitchy.

From the photographer:

Butterflies have always been a favorite subject of mine ever since I visited my first butterfly garden in Mackinac Island, MI with my grandparents when I was a little girl. Butterflies are perfect subjects to photograph, especially in an enclosed setting such as the Cockrell Butterfly Center, because you have the unique opportunity to see hundreds of unique subjects up close each with their own splendid color patterns!

This shot in particular was a wonderful surprise as it caught the profile of the butterfly perfectly and the background cast a wonderful halo effect around the wings.

For advanced photographers looking to shoot butterflies, I recommend using a macro telephoto lens at a substantial focal length (I took this photo using a 70-300mm) for more working room and using a tripod.

PS. Michelle has an entire set of lovely butterfly photos – check ‘em out!

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Visit our Cockrell Butterfly Center to see – and photograph – these stunning insects for yourself!

Giant African Millipedes are back!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Up until a few years ago, there was never any shortage of an amazing arthropod, known as the Giant African Millipede, around here. They are an absolutely breathtaking bug! Imagine a roly poly type of creature and add about 6-10 more inches of length and about 200-250 more legs! African millipedes (Archispirostreptus gigas) hold the title for the longest millipedes in the world. They are capable of reaching a length of 15.2 inches! They are sought after, not only for their size, but for their incredibly docile personality. They’re so cute and fun to watch! They make wonderful display animals because they spend most of their time above ground feeding and resting. They are voracious eaters and are often seen munching away at their food. They are a favorite among visitors. Volunteers enjoy handling them and giving our guests an up close and personal look. Unfortunately, we haven’t had them around here for a couple of years. The USDA halted the importation of these millipedes for a few reasons. You would only be able to acquire them if you had the appropriate permit, which we do, but finding a supplier was a huge challenge. After about two years missing them, we are happy to welcome them back!

One fast critter.
A Giant Centipede
Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1 

Millipedes are often confused with centipedes, another long, leggy arthropod. It is very important to know the difference because centipedes can be dangerous. The differences aren’t very subtle. Centipedes are morphologically similar; they have a head with one pair of antennae and a trunk made up of many segments. The major difference is in the legs. Centipedes (centi=100; pede=legs) have one pair of legs per body segment and the legs seem to originate from the sides of the body. Their legs are longer, thicker, and more muscular, allowing them to move very quickly. Their first pair of legs are modified and have become a pair of claws that are capable of injecting venom. All of these characteristics make them efficient predators that feed on anything from tiny insects to small mammals, depending on the size of the centipede of course. A very large centipede can harm a human with its potent venom. Small ones are not a threat. Like most arthropods, centipedes are shy and non-aggressive, but it’s important to know the difference so you don’t mistake one for a harmless millipede and try to handle it. Another feature that might give them away, if it’s difficult to see the legs, is a pair of appendages on their last segment. They resemble another set of antennae, possibly a defense mechanism to throw predators off of which side their head and poison claws are on. Millipedes don’t have these.

Millipedes are a diverse group of arthropods, ranging in size from 5 mm to 10 inches or more, like our giant African millipedes. Unlike centipedes, most eat decomposing organic matter. Their body segments are thinner and more numerous and each one bears 2 pairs of small legs. Although millipede means 1000 legs, the record is 375 pairs, or 750 legs! The legs originate from the bottom of the body so they cannot be seen from the top, like centipede’s legs. They are very slow moving. Their defense mechanisms are simple. First, they curl their bodies into a spiral to protect their legs. They can also secrete a chemical from pores along the sides of their bodies. This chemical varies from species to species, but it is meant to deter, gross out, or harm a would-be predator. Most of these chemicals are not harmful to people but will stain skin and clothes.  Once a millipede grows accustomed to being handled, they will not produce such secretions very often.

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Our new Millipedes
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 

We hope to have our new batch of African millipedes around for a long time. This is highly probable considering that they are very easy to care for and they can live about 5 to 7 years as adults. If you would like to see these incredible millipedes on display, come on by! Unlike some of our shy residents, these are always visible to the public! You can always keep an eye out for their smaller native cousins as well, they’re just as interesting to watch.

Until next time, happy bug watching!


Adventures Among Ants

Ants are endlessly fascinating.  They seem so HUMAN in the way they bustle around, cooperating in all things whether building great metropolises, hauling food, overcoming enemies or taking care of their queen and their baby sisters.  They epitomize industry and selfless devotion to the cause – their colony.  Of course as children we may have squished dozens of these little workers, but we have also watched their activities in wonder, marveling to see so many of our own behaviors reflected in their activities.

Dagger-Jawed Army Ants
©Mark W. Moffett/Minden

With 12,000 species world-wide, ants are the most diverse and widespread of the social insects, which include termites and some wasps and bees.  Ants are found on every continent and in every habitat, but are especially successful in the tropics.  Everywhere they are abundant and in many habitats are the dominant organisms, in terms of individuals far outnumbering all other animals.  They have few enemies and many have long-lasting, stable colonies.  Individual ants are remarkably long-lived, as insects go, with queens living as long as 13 to 15 years or so, and some workers surviving 4-7 years.  Unlike other social insects such as termites or honeybees, which are quite specialized, ants have many different ways of life.  Some have mutually beneficial relationships with plants or other insects.  Although a few ants are household pests, and some may cause agricultural or other damage, many are beneficial in terms of controlling pest populations, cleaning up wastes, and aerating the soil.

All ants are social; there are no solitary species.  Some are tiny, less than 1/16 of an inch long, while some tropical species are over an inch in length.  Depending on the species, ant colonies may be made up of only a few individuals, while others number in the millions.  In this and other ways, ant societies appear to parallel human societies.  Some are simple hunter-gatherers, with little specialization among workers, while others have huge and sophisticated societies with highly specialized tasks divided among different “castes.”  Driver ants in Africa and army ants in South America are ruthless predators, moving in huge numbers from temporary bivouac to bivouac in search of prey.  Any of us who read “Leinigin versus the ants” when we were in school can still remember the terror inspired by the image of a huge river of driver ants overrunning everything in its path.  Leafcutter ants also have huge colonies, but theirs are sedentary and underground, sometimes lasting more than 20 years.  Leafcutters are farmers, chewing up fresh leaves and fertilizing them with their saliva and feces to provide a rich substrate for the fungus they cultivate as food for the colony.  Harvester ants in dry grasslands stockpile seeds in underground storage areas.  Other ants are ranchers, herding and protecting groups of tiny, honey-dew producing insects such as scale and aphids.  Desert-dwelling honeypot ants use their own sisters as “cisterns” to store honeydew.  Formica ants in boreal forests make huge mounds of pine and spruce needles, which serve to regulate temperature and humidity.  Some ants do no work themselves, instead robbing pupae from neighboring ant nests, and then forcing the captured ants to work as slaves.

Dr. Mark Moffett
Photo by Frank J. Sulloway

Mark Moffett, renowned National Geographic photographer and explorer, has made a career out of his fascination with ants, and will be at the museum to talk about his favorite organisms on Wednesday, September 15.  An enthusiastic speaker with – needless to say – wonderful photographs – Mark will regale his audience with tales of warfare, industry, and cooperation.  He encourages all ages to attend!

Don’t miss Mark’s distinguished lecture at HMNS:
Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions
Mark Moffett, Ph.D.
Wednesday, September 15, 6:30 p.m.

Purchase your tickets in advance here.

Check out Moffett on Colbert in May 2010: