Nearly-Easter nearly-egg

cyldindrical cocoon
It’s 5mm long and elegantly decorated, but what is it?

There is always something new to see on a walk around the park and on our stroll with Wildlife Queensland folk last Sunday I noticed this beautiful little egg dangling from a shrub. Its silken thread suggested to me that it might be a spider’s egg-case (I knew the little dewdrop spiders create similarly rigid egg-cases and suspend them from a thread like this), and everyone knows that caterpillars make cocoons from silk and some suspend them from plants.

A little creative internet searching revealed, however, that it was neither of the above but the cocoon of a small parasitic wasp in the family Campopleginae, one of the 1500+ subfamilies of the Ichneumonidae.

That level of identification is as close as I will get, but this link will take you to a splendid international collection of photos of the adult wasps. Sometimes I love the internet!

Bookshelf entomology

Everyone knows about bookworms, even if all they know is the name, but bookworms are not the only small wildlife found in bookshelves, particularly in the tropics, as a recent bout of librarianship associated with repainting a couple of rooms has demonstrated to me very clearly.

mud wasp nests on book
Exhibit 1: Wasp nests

Wasp nests like these were by far the most common sign of insect life in our bookshelves. Female mud-dauber wasps (Sceliphron sp.) construct a cell, lay an egg inside and provision it with food for their larvae then, if they can, repeat the sequence nearby. A string of cells like this will have been constructed in a short time (days or weeks) by a single wasp and, if all went according to plan, her children would have emerged and followed suit.

The empty cells stay there for ever but don’t cause any real harm. They are just dirt, and nearly all of it will brush off. The easiest prevention is to push books all the way to the back of the shelf, making the gap too small to be tempting. The wasp will probably build a cell in a corner of the shelf instead.

Exhibit 2a: Resin bee nest
Exhibit 2a: Resin bee nest
Exhibit 2b: Resin bee nest occupied by mud wasp
Exhibit 2b: Resin bee nest occupied by mud wasp

Mud wasp nests are so common around our house that we hardly notice them until they do something odd but the resin bee nests did surprise me.

The pine bookshelves are adjustable, via a double row of holes about 5mm in diameter down each side for the shelf brackets. The empty holes seem to have been just right for our Fire-tailed Resin Bees (the second species described here).

In turn, the empty resin bee cell seems to have been just right for a tiny mud wasp to build its own cell. We often see tiny nests like this in odd nail-holes and screw-holes and, less often, in resin bee nests outside the house.

The resin bees are not doing any harm here except that the shelves are no longer so adjustable as they were meant to be. The resin is very tough, so removing it may mean drilling it out.

book eaten by silverfish
Exhibit 3: Silverfish damage

Our books don’t suffer as much from silverfish here as they did in Melbourne, I think because our climate is (usually) too dry for their liking, but this is their typical handiwork (mouthiwork?): superficial nibbling at the cover or dust-jacket, sometimes extending deeper into the bulk of the book. This damage may actually have occurred in Melbourne – we have had the book that long.

book attacked by borer
Exhibit 4a: Bookworm

The Britannica notes that a bookworm is, “any insect (e.g., moths, beetles) whose larval (or adult) forms injure books by gnawing the binding and piercing the pages with small holes. No single species may properly be called the bookworm because a large number of insects feed upon dry, starchy material or paper and may damage books.”

More specifically, however, bookworms are the larvae of beetles. Their damage is more distinctive than they are: tunnels one or two millimetres wide, often though book covers and sometimes through the pages, with a scattering of sandy droppings tending to fall out when the book is handled.

They are the most destructive of our book pests, and a book has to be really special before we will go to the trouble of trying to save it from them. They are not very choosy and it is obvious that one of ours veered out of its book and into the side of the bookshelf.

wooden shelf attacked by bookworm
Exhibit 4b: Bookworm, lost

Online references such as “Bookworms: The Most Common Insect Pests of Paper in Archives, Libraries, and Museums” compiled by Dr. John V. Richardson Jr., PhD, Ecological Informatician (nice specialisation!) list various other pests but we don’t see many of them.

Spiders, often Daddy-longlegs, sometimes lurk in corners of the shelves but do no harm at all; “booklice” (Psocoptera) don’t seem to be a problem here (again, probably because our climate is too dry) and cockroaches don’t go near our books except by accident.

Dr Richardson also mentions termites and these can indeed be a problem in North Queensland. There is a wonderful passage in Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country in which visitors to an abandoned homestead investigate a bookcase and find that it has been transformed into one solid mass of termite-mound.

I will leave you with that thought as I return to my re-shelving.

Insects enjoying the nectar

long skinny wasp
Gasteruptid wasp

Bug hunters love flowers, not just for their own sake but for the bugs they attract. This set of photos shows most of the insects I saw in just ten or fifteen minutes on one profusely flowering shrub in Anderson Park, beginning with the wasps.

blue-black wasp on white flowers
Blue flower wasp, Scoliidae

This wasp is possibly a Blue Flower Wasp, Scolia soror, and certainly a close relation if not that particular species. There was another similar one feeding on the same shrub, distinguishable by a bright yellow patch on the back of its head; it may have been Scolia verticalis (see them both here, on Graeme Cocks’ site).

Scoliidae is just one family of wasps, the Flower wasps. Gasteruptidae (top pic) is another (BugGuide calls them “Carrot Wasps” and you can see why, but I don’t think they have a genuinely common name), and there are many more including Polistinae, the Paper wasps. This index page on Graeme’s site shows them with their nearest relations, the bees and ants.

small green bee on white flowers
Green native bee

This small native bee (Colletidae) is similar to one which appeared on my earlier all-on-one-plant post. The beetle below is not just similar – it is definitely the same species:

brown beetle on white flowers
Brown Flower Beetle, Glycyphana stolata
small fawn butterfly on flowers
Lycaenid butterfly

The odd angle of this shot was forced on me by my uncooperative subject but does allow me to point out a neat bit of mimicry: the eye-spots and tails on the lower part of the wings are a surprisingly good imitation of the butterfly’s head and antennae (there’s an even more striking example here, on a related butterfly). I’m sure this is not a coincidence, since tricking predators into attacking non-vital parts is great for survival.

blue dragonfly perching on twig
Palemouth Shorttail dragonfly, Brachydiplax denticauda

All the other insects here were attracted to the flowers. This dragonfly just wanted to perch for a while and found a suitable bare twig. He happens to be the first carnivore (insectivore?) on the page and he may well be looking out for prey amongst the smaller bugs attracted to the flowers. As I said in the beginning, bug hunters love flowers.

Accidental artistry

black and yellow wasp

I have been photographing insects for several years now and usually know, for better or for worse, how a shot will turn out. I still get surprises, of course, and most of them are deleted very quickly. This one was a surprise – the combination of lighting, lens and camera settings gave me an effect I didn’t expect – but I rather like it.

The subject is a common mud-dauber, Sceliphron laetum.

A prowl around my garden

I went for a prowl around my garden on Friday morning, camera in hand, to see what bugs were around. My intention was to take photos of everything, whether I already had photos of it or not, as a way of documenting (and reminding myself) what is active at this change-of-season time.

In the event I missed a few on purpose and a few because they were too quick for me but ended up with presentable shots of 25 species. I uploaded them all to Flickr and they can be viewed as a slideshow here (if it doesn’t work for you, click here to go straight to Flickr). For information about them, enter full-screen mode and click “show info”, or click on the photo to go to the Flickr page (new window).

What did I miss?

  • I saw many of the butterflies I mentioned in my previous post but didn’t bother chasing them;
  • a hover-fly, a brown paper wasp and a black and yellow mud-dauber wasp escaped before I could get a shot;
  • I could easily have taken photos of St Andrew’s Cross, Spiny and Silver orb-weaving spiders but I know I could do that any time;
  • I didn’t photograph all the species of small dark flies I saw, because there are too many and they are too similar; and
  • By restricting my collection to that one-hour prowl I missed the Eurema butterfly, Giant Grasshopper, Neon Cuckoo Bee and swarm of tiny bees I saw later in the day.

There’s a lot of life in a garden, if only you look!

Wasp and caterpillar

Wasp on tip of hibiscus leaf
Wasp in hunting mode

When I saw this wasp (Vespidae, Eumeninae) looking so busy on the tip of an hibiscus leaf I naturally looked more closely and saw what she was after, the very slim yellowish caterpillar in its retreat.

The action didn’t last long. The wasp flew off and the caterpillar was no more to be seen; I assumed that the wasp got her prey but it’s possible that the caterpillar escaped by dropping from the leaf on a thread of the silk it used to construct its retreat.

The caterpillar's retreat: the sides of the leaf are pulled together with silk, and there is a caterpillar-sized hole at the upper end
The caterpillar’s retreat: the sides of the leaf are pulled together with silk, and there is a caterpillar-sized hole at the upper end

I had seen these constructions before but never known what made them or why, so the incident solved a mystery for me.

The wasp, by the way, wasn’t hunting on her own account but for her progeny. All adult Vespidae (which covers most of the insects most of us think of as wasps – see this page on the Brisbane Insects site) feed on nectar but hunt caterpillars or spiders for their larvae. Paper wasps are included in the family – see this post about their life cycle for a photo of one with a ball of minced caterpillar – and here for good measure is a shot of our large black-and-yellow mud dauber with a caterpillar.

If it matters, these photos were taken nearly three months ago, in mid March, but I didn’t find time to upload them before my holidays. Better late than never, as they say.

What’s around – mid May 2013

Almost since I began this blog I have been writing a monthly summary of bug life in my garden (although I missed last month because I was away from home) and, having just checked what I wrote last year and the year before, I don’t feel compelled to re-do the whole survey again now since the results would be pretty much the same.

Differences? Our Chocolate Soldiers, Junonia hedonia, have been far less common for the last few months than they were in the same season in previous years; and I have found a few unusual bugs which really don’t belong in a seasonal list but do deserve posts to themselves, so I will write them up soon. Meantime, here’s a selection of creatures I have photographed recently in the garden:

Yellow butterfly
This Lemon Migrant, Catopsilia pomona, thought it was well enough hidden in the plumbago but it wasn’t – quite.
green caterpillar on leaf
An unidentified caterpillar
spiny blackish caterpillar
Mature caterpillar of the Cairns Birdwing butterfly, Ornithoptera priamus euphorion. The red horns are the “osmetrium” which it extrudes to frighten potential predators.

We’ve had a few adult Birdwings around recently and one female has been so successful in laying eggs that our Aristolochia vines (see this older post) are being eaten to the ground by the caterpillars. The first to pupate will be okay but, sadly, I doubt that later hatchlings will survive.

Very hairy brown caterpillar
We have seen quite a lot of these caterpillars recently and suspect they are falling from our poplar gum. Perhaps a Tussock Moth caterpillar.
A large wasp, probably Sceliphron formosum, foraging on macadamia leaves.
Orange cockroach
Adult Bush Cockroach, Ellipsidion humeralis, one of many native species
orange bug on leaf
Juvenile native cockroach, Ellipsidion humeralis

Cockroaches have such a bad reputation that the mere name makes people think the insect must be ugly, dirty and a pest. Not so: Wikipedia does spend most time on the pests but begins by noting that only about four species of 4500 worldwide are problematic. Our Bush Cockroach is no more ugly or dirty than a beetle, and its cousin from Western Queensland is very attractively coloured.

orange grasshopper
Immature Giant Grasshopper, Valanga irregularis, already quite big but still one or two moults away from fully-winged adulthood, on lemongrass
orange and brown butterfly
Australian Rustic, Cupha prosope, on pentas leaf

A beautiful species which doesn’t visit us very often – maybe a couple of times per year.

green spider with pink and white back
Flower spider, Diaea evanida, lurking with intent in a new-formed hibiscus leaf

This little spider pounced from this very retreat a day earlier to capture a tiger cranefly, as seen here.