Graphocephala coccinea

ImageI discovered this pretty bug today on a milkweed leaf while I was monarch egg-hunting.  Even better is its common name, the candy-striped leafhopper. It is one of the most attractive insects I’ve ever seen.  Bright pink and turquoise stripes, with yellow legs.  It hopped away so quickly that I could only capture a few shots of it.

These colorful insects are found from Canada south to Panama, and they can live in meadows or woodlands.  They have specialized mouthparts that allow them to ingest the juices of a plant.  Unfortunately they are known to be quite destructive to plants by piercing holes in their leaves to get at the juices.  They can also pass disease from plant to plant in this way.  Since their favorite meals include raspberry and blackberry leaves, I’m not surprised at finding a few in our garden.

Interestingly, these bugs’ eyes are bigger than their stomachs and because they overeat, will excrete a bubble of clear fluid (made up of plant sap and wastes) with a loud “pop” that can be heard by a human.

They overwinter as adults and after mating in the spring, lay their eggs inside the veins on the underside of plants.  Adults, who are mature after 10-14 days, live for about a month and females lay up to six eggs daily.Image

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Hesperis matronalis

Dame’s rocket, or Hesperis matronalis, is a member of the mustard family and was introduced to the United States sometime in the 1600’s.  It is said to have been Marie Antoinette’s favorite flower.  It is now listed as an invasive weed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and while it is not considered a noxious species, it is banned in at least one state.  However, some nurseries still use dame’s rocket in their wildflower mixes, and many people thoroughly enjoy its color and scent in the late spring/early summer.  The seed-oil of dame’s rocket has been used in perfumes and the young leaves are rich in Vitamin C, so they can be used in salads.

So what is the problem with this wildflower?  What I noticed on our property is that it forms dense stands.  It will compete with native species for light, nutrients and water.  Since it can grow to 4 feet tall, it usually crowds out other plants and forms thick monocultures.  It is a champion seed-producer, and it can survive on roadsides, creekbeds, and forests.  I noticed that one section of our property has been completely taken over by dame’s rocket this season.  While it is a short-lived perennial, it seems that its prolific self-seeding habit will ensure that it’s here to stay.

This plant can be confused with phlox, which looks similar but has five petals.  Dame’s rocket, like other members of the mustard family, has only four petals.

The flower below is NOT dame’s rocket.  This could be wild violet, which grows close to the ground.

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Bombus Impatiens

We found a vibrating fuzzy mass in our croquet set bag this past weekend. A few bumblebees flew out of the mass so we were sure that it was a bumblebee nest. Earlier this spring we had plans to build a nesting site for bumblebees from an overturned flower pot, but other things took priority and we never did. So we were fortunate to come upon this little home.

The particular species of bumblebee we found (there are many) is Bombus impatiens, which is the most common bumblebee in the eastern United States.  The queen is responsible for finding a suitable nesting site in the early spring, which could be an abandoned mouse nest, or another type of cavity.  She secretes enough wax to create a honey pot and she regurgitates nectar into the pot, then goes off in search of pollen to store for rainy days when she will not be able to forage.  After eating some of the pollen, her ovaries are stimulated to produce eggs and she will lay anywhere from four to sixteen eggs on the ball of pollen she has stored, which she then covers with wax.  The queen will actually sit on her eggs like a bird and while she is keeping them warm, she stays fed on the honey in her honey pot.  All the fertilized eggs will develop into workers (females) and later in the season, she will lay unfertilized eggs that will become males, and then fertilized ones that will become queens.  For an egg to become a queen, the larva must be fed more than the other larvae.

As larvae, the bumblebees have no eyes or legs, and they spend about two weeks in this way.  All they do is eat.  They have a “blind gut”, meaning that they do not excrete any waste, until they reach the pupal stage.  It takes about 4-5 weeks for the process of transforming from egg to adult to occur.

Workers live for about 4 weeks and they forage for most of that time.  Males emerge at the end of the season, just before new queens.  Mating occurs and the males die.  The new queens spend their winter in hibernation after filling their honey stomachs.  They are smart enough to find a place that won’t be prematurely warmed by the early spring sun, and therefore they usually don’t come out of hibernation early.

Bumblebees are extremely efficient pollinators, especially for blueberries, cranberries, alfalfa, and clover.  They can fly in cooler temperatures than honey bees can (41 degrees versus 50 degrees).

bumblebee life cycle summary

lifecycle diagram courtesy of the wonderful (

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Garden snails – part two

We decided to free our snails several weeks ago.  Upon releasing them to the world, it soon became apparent during cage cleaning that they’d left behind a gift – a clutch of eggs.

Garden snail eggs usually hatch after 2 to 4 weeks in the soil.  They need an immediate source of calcium after hatching (to build their shells), so they eat their egg casing and possibly any other snail eggs they encounter.  It will take about three weeks for them to appear like small land snails (without the translucent shell color) but it takes up to a full year for them to be sexually mature.  As adults and hermaphrodites, they can lay eggs as much as once a month.  Garden snails can live for several years.

Since most gardeners consider garden snails to be a nuisance species, it is worth considering if they provide any benefit to an ecosystem.  Of course the answer is yes:  they are a part of the food chain and provide nutrition for other species, and they break down decaying plant matter.  Apparently, they also are more likely to consume plants and leaves that are sick and dying than those which are healthy and robust.

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Wood duck

This wood duck (Aix sponsa) was very poorly photographed yesterday during our observation of a Canada goose territory scuffle.  The wood duck flew in to the pond right in the middle of the action.

I believe wood ducks to be one of the prettiest of all birds and in the nineteenth century, these birds were hunted almost to extinction for their pretty feathers to adorn women’s hats.

The wood duck is one of only a few types of ducks with claws, that allow it to perch on branches and climb trees.  The female will nest in a tree cavity if she can find one, but she will also use manmade wood duck boxes.  If she cannot find a good spot, she will lay in the nest of another wood duck.  When the ducklings are born, they jump from incredible heights out of their nest to the ground, where their mother waits for them.


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Garden snails

We have found many different garden snails this spring, in various shades of white, brown, tan and pink.  Many were already picked over by the birds, and some of them were bleached by the sun.  We found several active snails, and we brought them home to observe them in an unused goldfish bowl with moss, soil, a little bottlecap of water, and some pulpy fruit.

An interesting thing about snails is that they are either right-swirled or left swirled.  All of the snails we have found were right-swirled, which means that starting from the center, the swirl twists clockwise.  This is the more common type.


Garden snails usually have two sets of tentacles.  The upper set are eyestalks and the other pair is a set of olfactory organs for smell.


Garden snails can hibernate in winter and aestivate during the summer.  Aestivation means they retreat into their shells, and form a mucus door to preserve moisture.  Both hibernation and aestivation are forms of dormancy.  They build up an anti-freeze-like substance in the winter to avoid being frozen.


source of diagram: Wikipedia

Garden snails are pulmonates, which means they have a lung and breathe air.  You can see the air hole of this snail below.  It is easy to see it expand and contract with the naked eye.



One question we had was why the snail shells were in so many different colors.  My guess was that the food they ate had something to do with their outer color, similar to flamingos.  It turns out that it might have a little to do with food, but it is probably an evolutionary tactic snails use to make it harder for the birds to recognize them.  If all snails were the same color, birds would quickly develop a pattern recognition scheme and be able to wipe them out.  With varying colors and striations, some snails can escape being eaten.

Since most snails are hermaphrodites, they inseminate each other and are all able to lay eggs.  One snail will shoot a love dart into another, which simply increases the possibility that the other’s mucus will be hospitable to reproduction; it is actually a precursor to mating, which occurs later.  It does not matter where the love dart lands – the snail simply needs a contact shot.  Snails find each other for mating by finding each other’s slime trails.  The reproductive opening of a land snail is in its head.


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Ceratodon purpureus: Fire Moss


photo taken on March 12


photo taken on March 18

(written by Sophia, age 10)

This type of moss can live in very polluted areas like by the side of the road. We found some of this moss across the street on a rotting stump. When it is early spring the Fire Moss sends up green stalks, and as the moss gets older the stalks become red. The height is about 3 centimeters. The other names for this moss include Purple horn toothed moss, Ceratodon moss, and fire moss.

The most interesting things about fire moss are 1) that it can tolerate much higher pollution levels than other types of mosses, 2) that it can be found all over the world except in places north of Zone 2 (where the average minimum temperature is -50 degrees F), and 3) that its spores can remain viable after drying for 16 years.

There is a chart below forthe Fire mosses taxonomy:

Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Bryophyta
Class: Bryopsida
Subclass: Dicranidae
Order: Dicranales
Family: Ditrichaceae
Genus: Ceratodon
Species: C. purpureus
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Black swallowtail, part two, after a 6-1/2 month wait

Something I learned today:  a chrysalis is a pupa that hangs.  A cocoon is a pupa that does not.  I have usually used these two terms interchangeably.

I set a black swallowtail chrysalis on the ledge in our art/science room this fall, after determining that it was a dud.  I did not assume it was an overwintering swallowtail since its sister hatched out just perfectly.  However, with sustained warm days and nights (and my ignorance in leaving it out on a shelf), it hatched yesterday during some 75 degree weather.  I found it on the floor, crumpled and alone.  I was able to get it hanging, in order for it to pump up its wings, and I performed a little spiderweb removal to allow the right hindwing to properly fill with fluid.  Within an hour, it was gorgeous.  I have a paper towel moistened with 1 part sugar/10 parts water as well as half an orange.  I do know that swallowtails can go several days without nectar at the beginning of this stage, but I felt it needed a little coaxing to eat this morning.  So we carefully uncurled its proboscis with a pin and encouraged some slurping on the orange.  She ate for several moments, was restful for a while, and now is quite active.

I realize now how hardy these pupae are.  I handled this pupa dozens of times this winter, moving it from place to place, even dropping it once or twice.ImageImage

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Black swallowtail butterfly from larva to adult

We discovered this swallowtail caterpillar on our dill in the garden just after its second instar phase.  Interestingly the chrysalis color depends upon where the caterpillar is attached.  It can be green if the swallowtail pupa is going to be stringing up on a green branch, or brown if it is on a stick or a dead leaf.  We missed the morphing from caterpillar to pupa as we were on vacation, and I missed the swallowtail eclosing from its pupa today.  With any luck I will catch our second chrysalis breaking open to release the adult.  I believe the adult pictured is a female.still has spikesalmost fully grown

last molt to fourth instar, or fully grown caterpillar, stage

note the faceplate below caterpillar’s head and the shedded skin below its lower endempty chrysalis strung up with fully grown adult next to it

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American pelecinid wasp

These wasps, species Pelecinus polyturator are almost always female, and when you see one with this elongated abdomen, you can be sure it’s female.  Since males are so rare, they mainly reproduce by parthogenesis, which is a process by which the female actually clones herself by hatching unfertilized eggs.

A little reading about these interesting wasps has taught me that they are part of a genus that only contains three species living today, and only one species lives in North America.  The very last section of the wasp’s abdomen is an ovipositor, and it uses this section to burrow into the soil searching for June bugs and other beetle larvae.  When she finds a host, she lays her egg on it, and when it hatches, it uses the beetle larva for food, killing it.

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