What’s around – mid February 2013

pink-tipped white flower cluster with yellow buds beneath open flowers
Flower of Cape York Lily or Native Turmeric, Curcuma australasica

For the last few months I’ve been saying in these seasonal change updates that nothing much has happened because we’re waiting for the Wet to arrive. In spite of Oswald, that’s still basically true, because Townsville got far less rain out of the ex-cyclone than the coast from Bowen to Northern NSW, and hasn’t had much since; we had a bit under 250mm in three days, three weeks ago, and have had less than 10mm since then. Humidity has stayed high, however, and the showers are only a few days apart, so life is stirring. The lawn is growing, the mango tree has put out a new suit of leaves and the Cape York Lily has flowered.

Butterflies: Migrants and Pale Triangles seem to be the most frequent visitors, with Blue-banded Eggfly and Crows also around occasionally. Of the residents, the little Zebra Blues have been with us all along but our normally-reliable Chocolate Soldier, Junonia hedonia, has been missing for over a month and our Eurema for even longer.

Wasps and bees: Mud-daubers (Delta, Sceliphron and a small black one) and resin bees have been active.

Spiders: Quite a lot of jumping spiders (an unusual one is here) and other small prowling hunters (e.g. Lynx) and a few orb-weavers – Gasteracantha, Leucauge, a Golden Orb-weaver male, and so on. The last of these had me quite confused for a while – he was a juvenile, a teenager in human terms, and he was bigger than the adult males of his species and patterned very much differently from them.

Flies and mosquitoes: The rain brings mozzies but there hasn’t been enough of it to make them unendurable. Flies of any family haven’t been particularly numerous and hover-flies have been almost totally absent.

Others: Grasshopper nymphs, green lacewings, shield bugs, the occasional mantis, elephant beetle and cicada … not much, really.

The latest long-term weather forecast was that the monsoon trough will be here mid-February but it is obviously running a little late.

This time last month / last year.

Bee heaven

Regular readers will know that from time to time I visit a family property on Hervey’s Range, in the hills about 40 minutes out of town. One of its outbuildings is a mud-brick pump-shed about two metres square with a corrugated iron roof. A big, old, rarely used pump takes up half the space on the dirt floor. [Update: photos of shed and the bushland around it added to flickr 1 Sept 2013].

Walking into the shed is like walking into a bee-hive. There’s a constant droning hum and constant movement of flying insects. The walls are pocked with dozens, hundreds, of holes which look like bullet holes but are in fact bees’ nests. The insects are not at all aggressive so one can stand there watching the activity and gradually make sense of it all – and take lots of photos, too, as I did last weekend (for the record, nearly 100 photos in just over half an hour) . Many of the best are on my Flickr photostream but I’ve put one of each species here too, to see if I can make the connections between the different creatures living together. (Clicking on a picture will take you to a bigger version as usual, but this time it will be on Flickr and there will be another picture of the same species adjacent.)

Three bees:

Blue-banded Bee 6440

Blue-banded Bee, Amegilla sp., Apidae. By far the most numerous species in the pump-shed, and makers of the nesting holes. Most sources only mention Amegilla cingulata but Graeme Cocks notes that “there could be four species locally.”

After mating, female blue banded bees build a nest hole into soft sandstone or clay. Cells at the end contain an egg and food (pollen and nectar) for the larvae when it emerges. A single hole can actually be a complicated maze of tunnels. Although solitary, many blue banded bees may build their nest burrows in the same spot, close to one another, but it is not a colony [in the way a honey-bee hive is a colony]. … The eggs in each nest develop but remain sealed in their cells until the warm weather returns and they emerge as the next generation of adults. (Source: bluebandedbees.com)

Fire-tailed Resin Bee 6368

Fire-tailed Resin Bee, Megachile mystaceana. About the same size as the Blue-banded Bee but there were only three or four around at any one time.

This Resin Bee female builds nest in existing cavity … (Source: Brisbane Insects)

Fire-Tailed Resin Bee (Megachile mystaceana) … is a great looking bee with a bright orange abdomen. … These bees will create a series of individual compartments (between about 8 and 12) within each hole and provision each compartment with pollen and nectar before sealing the end of the hole with a mix of resin and mud. (Source: nativebees.com)

Neon Cuckoo Bee 6359

Neon Cuckoo Bee, Thyreus nitidulus, Melectini, Apinae, Apidae. Much brighter than the Blue-banded Bee but a little smaller and far less numerous, with only one or two cruising around the shed. (A better photo is here.)

The female neon cuckoo bee seeks out the burrow nests of the blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata), and lays an egg into a partly completed brood cell while it is unguarded. The larval cuckoo bee then consumes the larder and later emerges from the cell. (Source: wikipedia)

The wasps:

Cuckoo wasp 2 6432

Cuckoo Wasp. A beautiful metallic green wasp, much smaller than any of the bees at only 6-8mm long (i.e. not the more familiar bee-sized Cuckoo Wasp, Stilbum cyanurum, here although colours are very similar).

[Cuckoo wasps] are most diverse in desert regions of the world, as they are typically associated with solitary bee and wasp species, which are also most diverse in such areas. (Source: wikipedia)

On finding the eggs or the nest containing eggs of a suitable species, such as the Mud-dauber Wasp, the female cuckoo wasp lays an egg next to the egg of the host species. The cuckoo wasp’s egg hatches first and the larva eats the food that is stored for the Mud-dauber’s young. … (Source: Australian Museum)

Wasp Gasteruptidae 6378

Gasteruptiid wasp. A very slim wasp with a body length about 22mm, an ovipositor almost as long again, and long dangling hind legs. I only saw one of these, flying in from outside and hovering along the face of the wall looking for something or other.

Gasteruptiid females oviposit in the nests of solitary bees (Apidae) and wasps (Vespidae) , where the larvae are predator-inquilines, eating the host egg or larvae and consuming the pollen store. Adult gasteruptiids may be seen on flowers or hovering near bare ground, logs or trees. (Source: CSIRO)

Cuckoo wasp 1 6405

Velvet Ant, Mutillidae (not a Cuckoo Wasp as I first thought). A beautiful, hairy, metallic blue-green wasp about the size of the Cuckoo Wasp at 6-8mm long. Male Velvet Ants, like this one, are winged; females are wingless (see CSIRO’s What Bug is That for more information).

Ant or wasp? Mutillidae? 6399

Velvet Ant, Mutillidae, female. I saw this one scurrying around on the shed wall and couldn’t decide for a while whether it was an ant or a wasp.

Mutillids are ectoparasitoids, and can be found on bare ground, sandy areas, tree trunks and walls where they search for nests of Sphecidae, Crabrionidae, Vespidae and Apidae whose larvae or pupae they parasitise. (Source: CSIRO)

Wasp nest entry 6425

I don’t know the maker of this nest but I do know that it isn’t any of those above. A wasp (Eumeninae) has converted a bee’s nest to her own use by plugging the original entrance and fitting a narrow spout-like entry.

Other small wildlife:

Fly uid 6415

Fly. This one species of fly was quite numerous. They spent most of their time resting on the shed wall, and they looked as though they were observing the bees and looking for chances to raid nests.

Their size and conformation reminds me of Tachinidae and the  Australasian/Oceanian Diptera Catalog notes that “The majority parasitize either larvae of Lepidoptera or larvae or adults of Coleoptera, but others attack adults of Hemiptera (Heteroptera), larvae of Hymenoptera (sawflies and social Vespoidea), or adults of various orthopteroid orders.” This is all quite speculative, however, since I’m not sure that my flies are Tachinidae, nor that Tachinidae do parasitise any of the bees nesting here.

Spiders. One abandoned huntsman exoskeleton (I can hardly call it a ‘shed skin’, can I?) and lots of small webs but not a great population of live spiders.

Ant-lion nymphs, in their volcano-shaped pits on the floor.

Why are they all there together?

In case you didn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together as you went along …

  • The Blue-banded Bees are there simply because it was a great  place to make nests.
  • The Fire-tailed Resin Bees are there because they like to re-use the Blue-banded Bees’ empty nest-holes.
  • The Neon Cuckoo Bee is there in the hope it can drop an egg into the new nest of a Blue-banded Bee.
  • The Cuckoo Wasp, Gasteruptiid wasp and Velvet Ants are there for much the same reason, although they may be parasitising the Fire-tailed Bees and/or the unknown maker of the nest with a spout entrance (the Gasteruptiid seems very interested in it here) as well as, or instead of, the Blue-banded Bees. Note that they can’t be planning to parasitise each other’s nests because none of them make their own nests.
  • The flies may be there for the same reason, or maybe they just like to steal food from the bees.
  • The spiders and ants just like a cool shady place to lie in wait for prey.

What a bee-hive!

Update 20.1.13: corrected identification of one photo, male Velvet Ant not Cuckoo Wasp.

Recycled housing

When I saw a maroon and yellow wasp working on an incomplete mud nest, my immediate assumption was that she was building it. In the first photo in this series, one cell is about 3/4 complete and there is a dark area at the edge of the opening which is obviously wet mud.

Wasp approaching mud nest
Approaching the incomplete nest

Mud-daubers (Eumeninae, also known as Potter wasps) collect little balls of mud and stick them in place to make nests in which they lay a single egg (here and here are other species doing it). They place provisions, i.e. paralysed spiders or caterpillars, in it and then seal it and move on. Inside, the egg hatches, grows as a grub-like larva and pupates in a cocoon which it makes within the nest. It emerges from the cocoon and the nest as an adult wasp, and the life cycle begins again.

Wasp working at the nest
Working at the nest

Here she is again, working on the same area. No real progress is evident.

Wasp nest partly demolished
The nest mostly demolished

And here is the nest a while later. By this time it was clear to me that she was not building the nest but taking it away. Why? It was some time before I had an answer, once again from the helpful folk on my Flickr groups.

Wasp nest in final state
The final state of the nest

terraincognita96 said, “It is quite common for Eumeninae wasps to demolish vacated mud nests of the previous season. They bring along a mouthful of water, regurgitate it on the old nest, form a mud ball and take it to their actual building site. The barrel shaped object left behind could be a cocoon of a previous inhabitant?”

So it proved when I removed it to photograph it and cut it open:

cocoon? 5644

cocoon? 5648

That looks like an exit hole at the top, and the lower shot shows a thin-walled cell with a little organic debris remaining inside.

In retrospect, the cocoon visible inside the incomplete nest should have been enough to tell me immediately that this wasn’t normal nest-building, but I had never heard of wasps recycling building materials before. There’s (still) always something new to learn!

What’s around – mid December 2012

cicada on wall
Yellow Tree Buzzer, Pauropsalta eryei

July’s rainfall total was 106mm, all of which fell between the 10th and 16th. Since then, i.e. in the last five months, we have had a total of only 10mm, the last of which was 0.4mm on Nov 18. Dry season indeed!

That said, temperatures and humidity have continued to creep up over the last month, and plants and animals alike have begun to anticipate the coming Wet. Our lawn has started growing again, the poincianas are flowering, the ball-of-fire lilies have flowered and the Carpentaria lilies have sent up stalks and leaves.

Probably the most notable change in our insect world is that Christmas beetles have arrived (mid-size brown and green ones, anyway; I haven’t seen the big golden ones yet, or an elephant beetle).

brown butterfly with white markings
Blue-banded Eggfly, Hypolimnas alimena, on banana trunk.

The first cicadas are here, too, and tiny grasshopper nymphs. Mud-dauber wasp numbers have increased, with Delta, Sceliphron and an unidentified red and yellow species of Eumeninae all building their nests.  The paper wasp nest I showed in September is still occupied but has hardly grown, as there are still only a couple of adult wasps at it. Blue-banded and Resin bees are around, too – one of the former met a sticky end at the hands (proboscis?) of this robber fly.

There have still been no mozzies to speak of. That is not a disappointment.

The hang-on-through-the-dry-season fauna is still hanging on: Lynx and Jumping spiders (but hardly any others), Green ants and Rattle ants, Leaf Hoppers (Flatidae) and a few other sap-sucking hemiptera; and Tiger craneflies,  Dolichopodidae, Soldier flies and hoverflies.

Ant-lion on frond
Ant-lion on ponytail palm

Of the butterflies, we are seeing Yellow Migrants, Pale Triangles, Junonia, Blue-banded Eggfly (a picture showing the blue bands is here), Common Eggfly, Cairns Birdwing, Zebra Blue and Magpie moths, but all in small numbers.

There are always ‘strays’ – critters which are new to me (still!) or which I know but rarely see. A tiny, gangly wasp in the former category is here, and the ant-lion at left is in the latter.

This time last month and last year.


What’s around – mid September 2012

The biggest event in the garden in the last month has been the flowering of our poplar gum, plus the paperbark, macadamia and bottlebrush. All attracted their quota of nectar-feeders – birds and flying foxes as well as insects.

The weather news is simple: we had a little bit of rain which triggered the flowering of our trees, and since then we have had rather warmer nights and slightly warmer days, with slightly higher humidity. Temperatures are now consistently dropping to 16C overnight (not 8 or 10) and going up to 28 in the daytime, and I do mean ‘a little bit’ of rain – the BoM recorded 1.4mm on August 20 and none before or since. The invertebrates have responded to the warmth and food with a surge in numbers and variety:

Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera): numerous Chocolate Soldiers and Eurema; a few Varied Eggfly and Evening Brown; and visiting Cairns Birdwing, Orchard Swallowtails and Ulysses. Magpie Moths are common again, and I loved the Zodiac Moth on the poplar gum. Nearer ground level, I spotted a pretty white moth, Amerila rubripes. It does have a ‘common name’ – Walker’s Frother but it’s not well known enough to be a genuinely common name.

hairy orange caterpillars
These very hairy caterpillars fell from the poplar gum and ended up on a weirdly photogenic blue textured glass louvre

Flies and their relations (Diptera): Tiger craneflies are abundant, to the extent that I saw half a dozen mating pairs in half an hour one morning, and the orange-headed Plecia flies are also mating. Our tiny metallic Dolichopodidae are as common as ever, and there are a few blowflies too. Mosquitoes? Yes, unfortunately, but not too many.

Paper wasps on a chain of nest cells
A new, small paper wasp nest. Its structure is enough to identify the wasps as Ropalidia revolutionalis

Wasps, Bees and Ants (Hymenoptera): Honey bees came to the flowering trees and various native bees are also around. The small parasitic wasps (Braconidae) are back, and so are paper wasps and mud-daubers.

Spiders and other Arachnids: The orb-weavers suffered housekeeping agonies from the poplar gum as flower debris kept falling into their webs, making them useless for trapping prey. Spiny spiders and the Silver Orb-weaver are the commonest at the moment, with a few St Andrew’s Cross spiders for variety. Jumping spiders, Lynx and flower spiders are all to be found, too.

Others: A praying mantis was resting on our lounge-room wall last night and I have seen a few dragonflies cruising through our airspace. There very few grasshoppers of any size or variety but lacewings, both green and brown, have been attracted to our lights in the evenings. Of the Hemiptera, my little aqua-legs sap-sucker is back and I have seen a few others; not many, though, and I suspect they are waiting for more new greenery.

Last monththis time last year