Carpenter Ant (genus Camponotus)

I find writing about ants difficult. Often there’s not a ton of information at the species level, and when you look at the genus as a whole, there’s way too much information. Still, ants are some of the most incredible insects around, so I’m going to do my best with today’s post!

You’ve probably heard of carpenter ants, but did you know there are over one thousand species of carpenter ant? They are found all over the world, particularly in forested areas. Carpenter ants are so named because they build their nests in moist and decaying wood, both in trees and in manmade structures.

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This ant may look like it’s dancing, but it’s actually cleaning its antennae. Image credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikipedia

Carpenter ants range in size, depending on the species. They can be anywhere from .76 to 2.54 cm long. Size also depends on the ants’ roles within their colonies, as some species have small and large workers, as well as ants in other roles. They also vary in colour, from completely black to a light brown.

Though carpenter ants build nests in wood, they do not eat it. Instead, they feed on plants, nectar, and on other insects or insect products, such as honeydew from aphids. Some species of carpenter ant will ‘farm’ aphids, tending to them and then living off the sweet honeydew they produce.

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A carpenter ant queen, looking quite regal. Image credit: Alex Wild via Wikipedia

Farming aphids is super cool, adding to the argument that ants are the most amazing animals on the planet. But some species have an even cooler (and grosser) method of hunting and defending themselves. These ‘exploding’ ants have enlarged glands all over their bodies, which can burst when the ants are threatened. This kills the ant, of course, but also covers the victim in a sticky substance that immobilizes it. It may seem foolish for an animal to sacrifice itself, but don’t forget that ants live for the good of the colony, and no sacrifice is too great.

Communication is key in colonial living, so carpenter ants, like most species of ant, use pheromones to send messages to the rest of the colony. Worker ants that find food will leave a trail of pheromones to mark the shortest path from the food to the nest. Other pheromones can be used to calm worker ants, or excite them so they can defend the colony. Pheromones also let ants know which ants belong to their colony and which do not.

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My drawing of a lovely carpenter ant queen. I had fun with this one!

Carpenter ants reproduce using mating flights, which occur when things are hot and steamy (literally: nuptial flights happen when the weather is warm and humid). Female ants will mate with multiple males during this flight, and then lose their wings and head out to find new places to colonize. Once the females have found a suitable spot, they lay around twenty eggs, which hatch into workers that will help her as she continues to lay eggs. Some carpenter nests have multiple queens, though they will act aggressively towards one another and therefore have to be kept in different parts of the nest.

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An example of the damage carpenter ants can do to wooden boards. Image credit: Nwbeeson via Wikipedia

There’s no doubt that carpenter ants are incredible creatures. Unfortunately, their habit of nesting in wood means that certain species of carpenter ant can be serious pests, as they nest in buildings and can cause extensive damage. Other species around the world are used as a food source, though I’m not sure I’d want to eat an ant. Still, whether you view them as pests or food, you have to appreciate the wonderful complexity of carpenter ants.

Cover image credit: Bruce Marlin via Wikipedia

Monarch Butterfly (genus Danaus)

Monarch butterflies have got to be some of the most well-known butterflies in the world. I remember in grade one our class raised monarchs from caterpillars to adult butterflies, to learn about metamorphosis. I also recall a play we had to do around the same time where I was a butterfly, and my mom made me these ridiculously awesome wings out of cardboard that were way more impressive than anyone else’s in the class (most of them had silly store-bought wings). The point is, that at least for me, monarch butterflies have been fluttering around in my consciousness for pretty much as long as I can remember. So it’s about time I blogged about  them.

There are three species of monarch butterfly, the North American monarch, the South American monarch, and the Jamaican monarch. they are found mainly in North and South America, though they also live in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific islands. Sometimes these pretty travellers appear in the UK, though they usually are there by accident. Monarchs are well-known for their epic migrations, in which millions of butterflies travel south to avoid chilly winters.

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Aren’t they beautiful? Photo credit: William Warby via Wikipedia

Butterfly populations west of the Rockies head down to California for the winter, while those in the east overwinter in Mexico. Those that head to Mexico travel up to 7,778 km to get to their wintering sites — quite an accomplishment for tiny butterflies! This migration is dependent on their being available plants along the route to feed the butterflies, as well as a number of climatic factors, including favourable tailwinds, appropriate temperatures, and low precipitation. If there is an early frost, the butterflies will die.

To try and boost their survival rate, monarchs enter diapause upon commencing migration. This lets the butterflies store essential nutrients needed for the long journey, such as lipids, proteins and carbohydrates. Mating and egg development is also suppressed while the butterflies are in diapause, so they can save all their sexual energy for the spring.

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Overwintering sites for monarch butterflies. That’s a lot of little flutterbys! Image credit: bfpage via Wikipedia 

Once the butterflies get to their overwintering sites, things don’t necessarily get easier. If it’s too hot in their roosting areas, the monarch will use up their fat reserves and die before spring comes. Warm temperatures can also stimulate the butterflies to leave the wintering site too early, meaning they will die on the migration back.

This is actually true for all migratory monarch butterflies — none of them survive the migration home. But the successful ones manage to breed before dying, so their descendants can complete the trip home. In fact, it takes four generations of butterflies for the monarchs to get back north.

Monarch butterflies are pretty recognizable with their bright orange and black wings. These bright colours advertise the monarch’s poisonous nature to predators — the butterflies contain toxic cardenolide aglycones, which they get from their diet of milkweed plants. Another orange-and-black butterfly that can be easily confused with the monarch is the viceroy, which was thought to mimic the monarch’s colouring to pretend to be toxic as well. It’s now thought that both butterflies are unpalatable, and that each mimics the other. Nature is confusing…

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I’ve been wanting to get into digital painting for a while, but I’m not very good at it. Still, practice can only help, so I forced myself to do my drawing for the week digitally, and I’m pretty happy with the result!

Most monarchs have wingspans between 8.9 and 10.2 cm wide. Migrant populations have much larger wings than resident populations, as the bigger wings help the butterflies survive their long journeys. Monarchs with larger wings are much more successful during migration.

In recent years, the number of monarchs at overwintering sites has declined. This is likely due to habitat loss, herbicide use and infection by parasites. Though they are not listed as endangered, if this decline continues these beautiful butterflies could be in serious trouble.

Cover image source: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson

Earwig (order Dermaptera)

The other day I was weeding my garden when I spotted a small hole in the soil. When I looked more closely, I noticed a bunch of things moving in the hole. Then a slew of earwigs crawled out of the nest, evidently upset that I’d disturbed their slumber. It was both fascinating and a bit disgusting, and it made me realize how little I know about earwigs. So I thought I’d rectify that and write a post about them!

Earwigs belong to the order Dermaptera, and live on every continent except Asia and Antarctica. There are around 2000 species of earwig. They love damp, dark spaces, and so are usually found in bark or logs, though they will also make use of any manmade cracks and crevices.

Earwigs are well built for wriggling into these tiny cracks, with flat, elongated bodies. They range in size from 7-50 mm, so you don’t have to worry about these guys getting too big. The most recognizable feature of earwigs is the pincers on their abdomens, which are used both for defence and for hunting. Earwigs do have wings, though they rarely fly, and the wings are usually tucked away.

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An earwig posing nicely on some flowers. The pincers on this earwig are quite curved, meaning it is a male. Image credit: James Lindsey via Wikipedia

Different species of earwigs eat different things, but most are scavengers or omnivores. They will also eat plants, which means they are sometimes considered pests, though they also eat other insect pests, so the jury is still out on whether earwigs are good or bad for crops.

Earwigs mate in the fall, with a male and female spending the winter together in a cozy retreat, usually a pile of debris or a hole in soil. In the spring the male leaves, and the female lays between 20 and 80 eggs in her nest. Female earwigs are very loving parents, tending to the eggs and newly hatched young. The eggs hatch after a week, and the young go through a series of moults before becoming adults. Their mother will stay with them until their second moult.

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An earwig posing nicely on some flowers. The pincers on this earwig are quite curved, meaning it is a male. Image credit: James Lindsey via Wikipedia

Earwigs have a pretty creepy crawly way of moving about, but other than that, there is little need to fear them. They do not actually crawl into peoples’ brains through the ears, and though they can sting, it is a very mild one that doesn’t hurt people. Some species can shoot smelly stuff from their abdomens, but this still isn’t harmful to people. So don’t fear earwigs!

Cover image source

Scorpionfly (order Mecoptera)

I’ve heard of dragonflies, and damselflies, but I never knew there was a group of animals called scorpionflies. I know there are some weird insects out there, but crosses between scorpions and flies are not something I’d want to see in person. Still, I can at least blog about them.

Scorpionflies belong to the order Mecoptera, which contains around 550 species. There are nine families of scorpionflies, found all over the world. They prefer to live in forested areas, particularly in damp climates.

Scorpionflies are characterized by their long, thin bodies. Almost all scorpionflies have wings, which are long and clear. There are some species that have lost their wings, so they should probably be called scorpionbugs, not scorpionflies. Another prominent feature of scorpionflies is their long mouths, which look pretty creepy.

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See how freaky these guys look? Image credit: Bob Warrick, via Wikipedia

Of course, the most noticeable part of scorpionflies is the one they are named after. In some species, particularly in the family Panorpidae, male flies have genitalia that look like scorpion stingers. These are used for mating, however, not for stinging, so they aren’t quite as terrifying as scorpion stingers. Another family of scorpionflies, the Bittacidae or hanging flies, have a fairly interesting courtship ritual.

Male hanging flies are only able to mate if they bring females presents, which take the form of some kind of edible treat. The larger the gift, the longer the male gets to mate with his lady. If the gift is too small, the female will fly away before the male hanging fly even has a chance to mate with her. It’s a tough world for male hanging flies.

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A nice closeup of a scorpionfly’s genetalia. Image credit: Richard Bartz, via Wikipedia

Once copulation occurs, female scorpionflies lay their eggs, usually in a place that has high moisture content. If the area is too dry, the eggs will delay hatching until there’s enough water around. Scorpionfly larvae look like caterpillars, and feed on plants or dead insects. Once they pupate into adults, they become more predatory, usually hunting for prey, though some still like eating dead things.

I didn’t like the sound of scorpionflies when I first started this post, but they’re a lot less terrifying then they seem. Still, they do look petty scary, and they’d make great stars of a horror movie.

Cover image credit: Richard Bartz via Wikipedia

Spider Wasp (family Pompilidae)

The other night I had a nightmare about spiders. This isn’t all that unusual, as almost every nightmare I have has something to do with spiders. Still, it left me feeling particularly unfriendly towards my arachnid nemeses, so today I’m going to write about animals that are particularly nasty to spiders.

Spider wasps belong to the family Pompilidae, which is composed of around 5,000 species. There are six subfamilies of spider wasps, with Pepsinae and Pompilinae containing the most species. As one might expect with such a large family, spider wasps range across most of the world.

Most spider wasps are black in colour, with markings that can be orange, yellow, white or red. They range in size from 5 to 50 mm, with female wasps usually being larger than males. Spider wasps don’t look particularly fearsome, with their slim bodies and skinny legs. Most species have long, slender wings, though some have short wings and some have no wings at all.

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A quite pretty spider wasp. Image credit: Vijay Cavale via Wikipedia

Though they hunt spiders, adult spider wasps are actually mostly vegetarians, eating nectar and other plant-based foods. They hunt spiders to help me sleep better at night, and to feed their young. Females paralyze their victims with a nasty venomous sting. These stings can be very painful to humans — tarantula hawks are known to have the second most painful insect sting in the world, behind bullet ants.

Once a spider is paralyzed, spider wasps have to drag it back to a pre-made burrow. Some species are lazy about this, and so will wait to catch a spider to dig a burrow. Others are even lazier, and use the spiders’ own nests burrows. After the spider is safely tucked into the nest, the female will lay a single egg on the spider. She then closes up the burrow, and some species will even put dead ants behind the entrance, to deter predators.

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A lovely photo of a spider wasp dragging a spider back to its nest. Image credit: Tony Wills via Wikipedia

The really nasty part of spider wasp biology happens after the egg hatches. The larval wasp immediately starts to feed upon the still-living spider. Some species of wasp paralyze their prey temporarily, which means the spiders will regain activity and slowly be eaten by the parasitic wasp larva. The larva is quite selective about what parts of the spider is eats, leaving the heart and nervous system for last. This keeps the spider alive as long as possible, so it doesn’t decompose before the larva is ready to pupate. Once the the larva has eaten all the tasty spider parts, it will spin a cocoon, and then emerges as an adult the next summer.

I’m not sure I’d want to run into any spider wasps — the sting of the tarantula hawk definitely sounds like one I’d like to avoid. Still, I can appreciate the way these insects treat spiders, so they’re right up there as some of my favourite animals.

Cover image credit: Alvesgaspar via Wikipedia

Ladybird Beetle (family Coccinellidae)

I was always very fond of ladybugs as a child. They were pretty and bright, didn’t bite, and I was always told that they were ‘good insects’, that ate aphids and therefore protected gardens. I remember picking them up and trying to keep them alive in various terrariums of my own design — one of the worst was when I placed a few ladybugs inside one of my Polly Pockets, crammed a few leaves inside, and expected them to live. They died, very quickly. In fact, not one of my ladybugs ever managed to survive.

Ladybugs are more correctly called ladybirds, as they are beetles, not bugs. To be fair, they are also not birds, so the most correct term is ladybird beetles, or lady beetles. There are over 5,000 species of ladybird beetles that can be found across the globe.

Ladybird beetles range in size from 0.8 to 18 mm, depending on the species. Though the lady beetles we are most familiar with are the common black-spots-on-red variety, there are many other colours of lady beetle. The background colour can be red, orange, brown or yellow, and the spots can be white instead of black. Some species have stripes, and some have no markings. With 5,000 species in one family, there’s bound to be a bit of variation.

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One of the species of boring-coloured lady beetles. Image credit: Mick Talbot via Wikipedia

Though they are often touted as wonderful pest controllers, not all ladybirds eat aphids and other nasty bugs. The prey ladybird beetles consume ranges from mites to caterpillars to eggs of moths and other beetles. They will also eat various other materials, like sap, nectar, and fungi. Other species like to eat plants, and are themselves considered to be pests.

As small little beetles, ladybirds have a number of predators, including birds, wasps, spiders, dragonflies and frogs. Ladybird beetles have two main defences against these terrible creatures. First, their distinct colouration makes some predators avoid them. After all, brightly coloured animals often taste pretty terrible. The second defence occurs when a predator attacks; the ladybird secretes a toxin from its joints that makes eating them seem like less of a good idea. It sounds nasty.

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A more fun species, chomping on a leaf. Image credit: Mark Marathon via Wikipedia

Ladybird beetles put little effort into raising their young, other than strategically laying their eggs. Often the beetles will lay eggs near their prey, so the larvae can find their first meals with ease. Other species lay extra, unfertilized eggs with their clutch, so the little ones have something to eat when they hatch. When resources are scarce, the mother beetle will lay a higher proportion of these unfertilized eggs, and fewer viable eggs.

Overall, ladybird beetles are a pretty decent group of insects. They do like to come into houses before winter, which can be a bit unsettling. This year we had a late start to winter, and there were ladybirds everywhere. My friend and I counted at least ten on one window of the YMCA alone. Still, they’re pretty harmless, so I don’t mind them all that much.

Cover image credit: Gilles San Martin via Wikipedia