Camouflaged looper inchworm

On July 13 in the mass of black-eyed susans, I spotted more than a dozen different kinds of insects. The coolest was this one, which I believe is a camouflaged looper inchworm. Its destiny was to turn into a wavy-lined emerald moth.

Black-eyed susan with a small caterpillar at the top of the center disk, with lots of dark brown spikes sticking off its body.

This caterpillar chews off parts of plants and then attaches them to itself as a disguise.

Flower from above, with a caterpillar looped on the left side and several brown clumps attached to its body.

It was concealed so well against the flower’s dark-brown center disk, I’m not sure how I even spotted it at first!

Angled view of a flower, with a small brown clump on the opposite side of the center disk.

Though after I saw it once, I could easily find it again later the same day, and even the next day. (The accumulating quantity of frass also helped locate it.)

Caterpillar with its front end raised above the center disk.

Making its way around the ring of tiny flowers in the center disk of the black-eyed susan:

Side view of the flower, with a caterpillar on the right side, the back half of the center disk's flowers missing.

Almost finished the next day:

Side view again, caterpillar on the left side, no center disk flowers visible, but the caterpillar still appears to be eating.

I saw it crawling around a bit but unfortunately didn’t get to see any of the actual “gluing.”

Watch video on YouTube

Two more videos:

I kept checking back for this inchworm every day for a week and saw it many more times.

Top view of the flower, with the inchworm 'inched' at the top.

Top view showing two thick layers of camouflage:

Only the very top of the caterpillar showing, with two distinct ridges of material on its body.

Sometimes it was resting on a petal, and in these cases it looked nothing like a caterpillar.

Black-eyed susan with a small brown clump on one of the petals on the right, lots of frass around the center disk.

Once I thought it was gone, but then found it again on a nearby flower. This time it looked different after it apparently re-covered itself with new material.

Flower in shade apparently underneath another flower, with the caterpillar 'inched' and some lighter brown or yellow material on its body in addition to the dark brown.

And this time I saw it eating the petals, too.

Caterpillar on a petal that's curving down, reaching out to the edge.

But after that, I didn’t see it anymore. Hopefully it made its way safely to its next stage as a cocoon.

More about camouflaged looper inchworms:

Pelecinid wasp

On August 15 I found something in our box elder tree that is definitely not a box elder bug.

black insect perched on a leaf, with a slender abdomen longer than its body protruding from the back and curved under

A quick Google image search (“mn fly with scorpion tail”) identified it as a wasp, American Pelecinid, that looks intimidating but doesn’t have a stinger. It uses its long abdomen to dig into the ground until it finds the grub of a June beetle, and there it lays an egg that will feed on the grub.

It would be nice if it would look for Japanese beetle grubs, too.

Two weeks later, at a seed collection event, one of these insects landed on another volunteer. No one else knew anything about it, and I was so excited to share what I know about this wasp, including that it’s harmless. However, I couldn’t remember its name, and so I looked it up on my Instagram feed.

In my excitement to share, I called it a PELICAN-id wasp. It wasn’t until about five minutes later that I realized it’s probably pronounced “pell-i-SIN-id” instead. (And yes, according to a Google search, that second version is true.) I was embarrassed the rest of the event, and I don’t think I’ll forget the name again.

More about pelecinid wasps

Bees and turtlehead

I could watch bees crawl in and out of turtlehead flowers all day. Mostly it’s just bumblebees and honeybees that do this, because they’re big enough to open the flowers. And I see more bumblebees than honeybees here.

bumblebee that is almost all the way out of a dark-pink flower, viewing almost straight into the flower's opening

They force their way into the “mouth” of the “turtle” and rustle around inside for quite awhile, then exit and find another flower to repeat the process.

Video of a bumblebee from a few years ago:

Sometimes they need to stop and regroup after they exit, brushing the pollen off their antennae or eyes, I assume.

bumblebee with a small yellow pollen basket, holding on to a light-pink flower with a leg up near its eyes, viewed from the side

This flower has a honeybee inside, barely visible.

looking straight into the 'mouth' of a dark-pink flower, the bee is not distinguishable but the back of the flower is dark

This year, at first, I thought I had noticed a difference – bumblebees climb out backwards, while honeybees turn around and climb out face-first – but then I saw a bumblebee turn around, too. (And the video above shows a bumblebee that turns around, so I had seen that before.) In fact, I don’t seem to have any photos of bumblebees backing out. So much for that theory.

just the head of a bumblebee emerging from a light-pink flower

same bee a fraction of a second later, with its front two legs and its body visible to the thorax

This one is my favorite: looks like it was quite the effort to squeeze out of this blossom.

three light-pink blossoms, with a honeybee emerging from the lower right flower horizontally and tilted, looks like it's pulling itself out with its front two legs

Only a little hint of the insect inside.

one bumblebee leg sticking out of a light-pink blossom

Rudbeckia’s visitors

If I were giving out an award for the most social flower of the year, black-eyed susan would win. One fun day, I spent the morning checking and rechecking on them, noticing and admiring the diversity of insects that were attracted to the blossoms. About two-thirds of these photos are from that one day alone.

Bees:

likely a bumblebee on the right side of the center disk, facing downward

metallic green been in the same position

unidentified smaller bee on the left of the center disk, curled and facing downward

possibly a megachile, on top of the center disk, with legs full of orange pollen

Flies:

really big fly with hairs, possibly a tachinid, on top of the center disk

long-legged fly standing out on one of the petals

Flies that look like bees:

bee mimic with a wide abdomen

much smaller bee mimic, or hoverfly, hovering to the left of the center disk

Butterflies:

tattered monarch sitting on the right side of the flower

Eastern tiger swallowtail with wings outstretched, tilted toward the camera, on the right side of the flower

Bees and butterflies:

gray butterfly, possibly a hairstreak, on the left side, and a long-horned bee on the right, their antennae crossing in the middle

Lacewing:

sitting on a petal in the front of the picture, facing downward

Aphids:

a blurred stem with two large red aphids and several smaller red aphids, in front of a black-eyed susan

Beetle:

beetle perpendicular to a tall center disk, with a dark red body and wing shells that blend in with the flower disk

Japanese beetle doing the splits:

beetle on the petals facing up

Leafhopper:

small green insect tucked into the fold where the petal meets the flower's center

I don’t know what this is:

patterned brown insect with long antennae, climbing up a tall center disk

Inchworm:

skinny green caterpillar holding onto a petal with its head hidden behind the center disk

And my favorite find, a camouflaged looper inchworm:

curved brown caterpillar hanging off the right side of the center disk

(More about this camouflaged looper caterpillar.)

There was also this gruesome find — one dead bee on a petal, with two dead bees and one dead fly suspended below — but then again, a spider’s gotta eat, too. (I assume that’s what created this scene.)

tall image of a flower with four dead insects, three hanging below the flower but no visible spiderwebs

Japanese beetles

I thought that the Japanese beetle outbreak wasn’t so bad this year (compared to previous years).

one Japanese beetle facing the camera on common milkweed, as if posing

I was wrong.

one beetle climbing downward on fleabane

They started out slowly, with just one or two showing up seemingly randomly on basically every kind of plant in the yard — no surprise, since there is a list of about 300 plants that they like. But then they found the grapevine

about a dozen beetles on two grapevine leaves, not much damage yet

and the purple giant hyssop

dozens of hyssop stems, the closest two each with many beetles

and on both of those plants, they really cluster.

two dozen beetles on one grapevine leaf, with holes chewed in about half

Japanese beetles are an invasive species that arrived on the east coast of the United States just over 100 years ago, and they’ve been moving westward ever since.

beetle climbing off a pearly everlasting bud onto the leaf

They are considered a major agricultural pest, destroying turf grass (which, sorry, I don’t care for anyway) and defoliating shrubs and trees.

beetle upright in the cone of a black-eyed susan

They’re actually quite attractive bugs, with their metallic coloring…

beetle in the center of an unopened purple coneflower

and maybe they’re even a little cute, with their “eyelashes.”

beetle clutching pearly everlasting leaves, with its antennae clearly visible

My current method of control is to walk around the garden with a small container of soapy water and to knock the beetles into the container, where they drown. This is mostly but not completely effective because some will fly away, and it is even a little bit fun (but only because it’s an invasive species) as long as the beetles don’t end up in my hair, which happens at least once a night. I sometimes find them there hours later, which is rarely a happy event.

clear-plastic container with several dead Japanese beetles floating in clear water, viewed from above

With the large size of my garden, this collecting activity leads to some pretty full, and pretty yucky, containers.

similar container with several layers dead Japanese beetles floating in dark, murky water, viewed from the side

These ones were pretty smart in picking a super-sharp thistle, where I’m not about to go after them.

four beetles deep in the heart of a thistle

I have heard from a couple of in-person and Instagram friends that chickens love these beetles, but unfortunately I do not have access to chickens. And Japanese beetles don’t have enough natural predators to really control their numbers in Minnesota — though I did catch this interesting altercation between a candy-stripe spider and a Japanese beetle on a common milkweed plant last year. The beetle put up a really good fight, but the spider eventually won.

first of a series of five photos of a white spider with a pink spot on its abdomen, pulling a beetle down off a leaf and wrapping it up

The end of a Japanese beetle at the hands of a candy-stripe spider, the same night — possibly the same pair, though on a joe-pye weed 10 feet away:

candy-stripe spider with a dead Japanese beetle on a joe-pye weed that is partially folded over, connected at the top by a spiderweb

Trapped by milkweed

Every summer when the common milkweed is in full bloom, I find insects trapped in its blossoms. They can’t get their legs out because they’re caught in a slit in the flower or on a bundle of pollen called pollinia.

honeybee that appears to be visiting but is stuck on the underside of a cluster

I sometimes see honeybees struggling, like this one from two years ago…

honeybee, out of focus at the bottom of a cluster, hanging by one of its back legs

…and then if they fight enough, they’re often able to get away. I’ve even seen honeybees get stuck, struggle, free themselves, and then immediately get stuck again on another flower.

same honeybee has righted itself, and its wings are beating so fast they look like a blurred circle

But sometimes, they aren’t able to get free. I assume this one struggled so much that it got turned around and found itself in a cage. When I find them, I help them escape. It may be interfering with nature, but I can’t sit by and watch them suffer.

honeybee inside a blossom, viewed from underneath, and the individual flower stalks look like a cage

For the insects that can’t escape, if I don’t find in time, that’s how their story ends. I’ve found many dead insects with their legs stuck in the flowers.

honeybee stuck at the bottom of a cluster

Honeybees, flies, and moths are the only insects I’ve found trapped; bumblebees and other bees, as well as butterflies, apparently are strong enough that this isn’t an issue.

fly with its front two legs trapped in one flower and at least one back leg trapped in another

I found these two moths about two feet apart one morning.

small white moths with a bit of brown stripes, one with its wings open and the other with wings straight behind

The one on the left even lost a leg in the ordeal; you can see it in the first picture too.

facing straight into a blossom, with a white insect leg bent in one of the flowers

Learn more about this phenomenon

Upside-down butterflies on common milkweed

I think the title pretty much says it all.

Painted lady:

side view of butterfly facing right underneath a pale-pink cluster, nearly blending in with the flower color

Eastern tiger swallowtail:

facing left under a flower cluster, wings partly open, back wing only partly visible
Red admiral with wings closed:

side view of butterfly facing left, hanging off the bottom right side of the flower cluster

Same butterfly with wings open:

same position, with the wing on the right visible and the wing on the left straight on with the camera

Comma butterfly — wings closed, with the white C / backwards comma visible:

mottled brown butterfly with a small white c, facing up to the right under the flower

Same butterfly with wings open:

wings flat, top wings hanging below the blossom, antennae in an upside-down V

Mourning cloak (taken from the “wrong” side of the sunlight, so it’s in shadow):

facing left underneath a flower cluster, antennae to the left, proboscis in a flower

Monarch:

butterfly hanging underneath a blossom, facing right, taken from far away, showing a lot of the plant

And though this one isn’t a butterfly yet, it will be one day, and it’s my favorite photo of the year so far, so I’m including it in this set. Monarch caterpillar in common milkweed:

nearly round blossom, a few flowers moved from the left front to show a caterpillar with its head at the bottom left and its end up near the middle

Black swallowtail caterpillars

After a big morning storm on June 11, which included plenty of hail, we spent a lot of time in the garden checking on the flowers and the caterpillars. Not many flowers were blooming yet, which may have worked in our favor: some common milkweed and cup plants had a few ripped leaves from the hail, but most looked just fine.

The monarch and American lady caterpillars were wet and recovering where they usually reside, and then we found something somewhat unexpected: five black swallowtail caterpillars.

It wasn’t completely unexpected because they were all on Golden Alexanders, which is a host plant, and I had been looking for them for a couple weeks. (I saw a butterfly on May 12, and a caterpillar last year, so I knew it was a possibility.) But I was quite surprised to find five!

large, mostly white caterpillar, with black and yellow stripes, along a flower stem with its mouth at the blossom

a little smaller, more yellow, resting on a leaf

two mostly yellow, spiky caterpillars in the flower blossom, eating

The fifth looked strange; maybe it had been hurt during the storm?

a caterpillar upside-down, possibly wedged between two flower stems

I kept checking for them after that day, and two were visible for more than a week. Here are photos from one evening:

a skinny, smooth, green caterpillar with black stripes that have yellow dots, along the bottom side of a half-eaten leaf

similarly sized caterpillar viewed from the front, holding a leaf in its front legs to eat it

Same caterpillar from the side, looking guilty (though of course that is just my funny interpretation):

still holding the leaf, but the patterns on its head make it look like the caterpillar is hiding behind its hands in embarrassment

This was the last night I saw any of these caterpillars. I don’t know enough about the life cycle of black swallowtail butterflies, yet, to know whether these caterpillars moved away to pupate, or whether they were more likely eaten by birds, wasps, or something else.

2016 season wrapup

I’m still contemplating my new year’s resolutions but before looking forward, I want to take a quick look back. Here’s a short list of what happened in my garden in 2016:

Failures

Pasque flower simply didn’t come back, after a couple years of doing well. This was a cultivar, and I bought a native to replace it.

large purple flower near the ground and another beginning to open

Purple prairie clover started fine but was eaten by rabbits.

about a dozen stems chewed off two inches high

I scattered swamp milkweed seeds in the fall of 2015, but nothing sprouted.

Successes

Wild columbine thrived in its first year in the yard, after being transplanted late the year before

focus on one pinkish flower with several other buds and flowers blurred in the background

Strawberries not only survived their first winter, they produced several berries. The plants spread far in late summer, so we’re hoping for a real crop next year.

three strawberries on a vine, two white and one bright red

four sets of three strawberry leaves, one just opening, with vine to the left and right

Our first-ever grapes, after years of relatively healthy grapevines! (Though not surprisingly, something ate them before we could.)

three bunches of green grapes

Some kind of super-tall (8-foot) aster.

dozens of small white flowers on a stem that's bent near the ground

Unintentional beauty of onion flowers, which were leftovers from 2015 and continued growing on their own.

a globe of white flowers with green veins

New creatures

More and more insects (and other creatures) are finding a home, or at least dinner, in our garden. These are some of the things spotted for the first time:

mourning cloak

side view of a dark brown butterfly with a line of lighter brown at the edge of the wings

swallowtail caterpillar

large caterpillar climbing up a short stem and eating the top

hairstreak butterfly

gray butterfly on bright orange butterfly weed

summer azure butterfly (I think)

very light purple butterfly upside-down on a clover in the lawn

a similar, but I don’t think the same, butterfly

small purple-ish butterfly in milkweed blossoms

hummingbird moths

yellow-and-black fuzzy moth with its proboscis curled near a bee balm

brown, black, and red fuzzy moth with its proboscis in a bee balm

thick-headed fly

skinny black fly with narrow white stripes, looks a lot like a wasp

clearwing borer moth

skinny black insect with a feathery tail and clear wings on stiff goldenrod

potter wasp

black wasp shoving a green caterpillar into a small mud pot

another kind of wasp (I think)

mostly black insect with a couple yellow stripes flying between bee balm blossoms

some kind of orange dragonfly

dragonfly perched on butterfly weed

swamp milkweed leaf beetles

yellow beetle and red beetle copulating on a milkweed leaf

candy-stripe spider fighting a Japanese beetle (more to come on this encounter)

white spider with a bright pink spot, near a dark beetle

whatever this little orange bug is

bug with an orange body with marks that look like a smiling face, and tiger wings

hibernating wooly bear caterpillar, accidentally uncovered when doing late-season planting

orange-and-brown caterpillar curled into a ball

Overall

I always have several blog posts in my head and an even longer list of potential ideas, but it’s hard to get them written. So there were not nearly enough blog posts in 2016, but I posted almost daily during the growing season on Instagram.

My biggest personal success was becoming a master naturalist. I anticipate this will become a bigger and bigger part of my life going forward.

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