• Blogtober: The color orange

    Until I sat down to create this post, I didn’t realize how many insects show orange at my park. When you think orange insects, you might first think of butterflies, such as Monarchs and Viceroys. But there’s way more insects than just those charismatic ones. Spiders too often had a rusty orange hue. I wondered why I had found and photographed so many orange insects/spiders long before I even thought of doing a Blogtober challenge, let alone selected this prompt. With Monarchs, the bright color is a signal to predators that they’re distasteful. Viceroys too– they are Mullerian mimics, in that they look enough like Monarchs to probably fool most predators, but also taste pretty nasty in order to reinforce the message that Monarch-like butterflies = nonedible.

    Do all of these other bugs also taste bad? Are they riding on the Monarch’s coattails, benefitting from the association of distastefulness with the color orange? Or for that matter, is orange universally a signal of foul taste? Maybe the color is just a function of what they’re eating, i.e. maybe there’s lots of carotenoids in their diets? I don’t know. I went down a long rabbit hole looking for answers, but haven’t found them yet. Here’s a good article about the hows and whys in general of insect coloring: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00442-020-04738-1 I don’t have time to chase all the possibilities right now. I’ll keep an eye out for more research though, and update if there’s anything interesting that develops.

    I eventually concluded that regardless of why so many bugs are orange, it did make them easier to spot against the green foliage. So maybe I’m seeing more orange bugs not because there actually are more of them than other colored bugs, but just because it’s so much harder to see the green and brown ones! Observer bias I think.

    What do you think of my theories? Do you have a different explanation for the high number of orange bugs? Leave a comment below. Enjoy a small sampling of my orange bugs and spiders in the meantime!

    An Orange-patched Smoky Moth
    A robberfly, not sure what species yet. I’m too tired to find it.
    Monarch butterfly
    Can’t re-find my original posting of this moth on iNaturalist.
    Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars

    I’d hoped to have more reading done about orange insects that I could tell you about. But I am really exhausted. If I have time in between the other prompts over the next couple weeks, perhaps I’ll come back here and update this post. Zzzzzzzzz…….

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    Blogtober: Lurking

    As an introvert in a fairly extroverted job, I often struggle with how to start a conversation with park visitors. This summer, though, I hit on a technique that answers my plight nicely: the “interpreter lurk.” It’s not a formal program, but still helps me figure out which visitors are actually interested in learning more about the park. Here’s how it works.

    I use the lurk as part of my usual trail rove. As I hike, I look for something that’s busy with insect activity. At the end of the summer, this often was fulfilled by a patch of blooming Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). Wingstem is common along most of our popular trails.

    Some wingstem beside the historic canal

    Once I find a good patch, I settle in for a few minutes, just watching the insect activity on and around the flowers. I might take out my cell phone to snap photos of both pollinators and their predators for iNaturalist, or I might just observe. Within minutes, a few passersby usually ask, “What are you looking at?”

    A native sweat bee (Augochlora sp.)

    From there I point out the myriad insects. I like to reveal their behaviors, and how they interact with or depend on other plants and animals the visitors have likely seen in the park. From there, further questions almost always arise, about other insects in the park or even at the visitors’ home. I even had one family ask me how to raise the Black Swallowtail caterpillars they discovered in their parsley plant! (You can imagine my glee at that question, if you’ve read my caterpillar posts on the original Contented Naturalist, such as here and here and here.)

    I can also turn the conversation to broader themes if a group sticks around, such as how climate change might mismatch the timing of goldenrod blooms and monarch migration. Other times we might find yet another interesting animal that shifts our focus. I once had started my lurk near several large praying mantises, one of whom had already caught a bumblebee and was devouring it. Not long after pointing them out, however, a passing dog walker suddenly yelped and stumbled, trying to avoid something underfoot. When he regained his footing, he exclaimed, “A snake! A green snake!” A small green snake had crossed the path and disappeared into the tall grass. We all watched as the snake’s path was betrayed by the moving grasses. Soon it emerged at the base of a tree, and slowly wove its way around the trunk. It paused from time to time, exploring some dead vines, before eventually disappearing back into the grass.

    Here’s what we were watching before the snake made its appearance: a praying mantis devouring a very unlucky bumblebee.

    Talk about being in the right place at the right time! Likely none of us would have seen the snake if we hadn’t already been stopped on the trail to look at the mantises. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos—I was focused on pointing it out as new hikers joined us. I also didn’t tell folks much about the snake’s life or places. But my comments weren’t needed, either, for watchers (and me) to walk away with a real sense of “Wow!”

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    During a visit to Monhegan Island, Maine, this summer, I had the chance to try some newly purchased equipment: my mothing setup. I used the recommendations at https://calnature.org/blog/2017/9/27/diy-moth-light for what to buy, if you’re interested in trying this yourself. [Note that the web site seems to be having issues as I post this, hopefully that will smooth out soon.] I knew nothing about the moths that lived on the island, but hoped I might see some interesting individuals.

    I read that different types of bugs come out at different times of the night. Silk moths, the big charismatic moth group that includes lunas, are active right around midnight. Smaller moths and insects show up in the earlier hours. At Monhegan I even had a ladybug appear! I would have assumed that ladybugs would sleep through the night. Not this one, though.

    Do Asian ladybeetles get insomnia like people?

    I draped a white shower curtain liner over our cabin’s porch railing and aimed my black light at it from the side.  Although I didn’t stay up long enough to see whether the island hosted any big silkmoths, I did get some pretty neat visitors. A burying beetle was one favorite. Also numerous small moths, beetles, etc. I didn’t have energy to set an alarm to get up and check at midnight, rather than take everything down after a couple hours. So I can’t say I came anywhere close to grasping the entirety of Monhegan’s nocturnal insect population. But as far as testing my equipment, it was still worthwhile. Perhaps next summer I’ll impose on a friend with a back yard to host an all-night mothing party.

    My Monhegan mothing setup
    A Say’s Burying Beetle, according to iNaturalist.

    Probably a kind of ichneumonid wasp, nobody on iNaturalist has chimed in on the ID.

    An interesting thing happened while I wrote this post. First, I loosened up with a bit of freewriting on the day’s prompt. Then I switched to actual prose, but it seems my mind was still in sort of a moody horror mode. I drifted asleep while still writing, and when I came back to consciousness I discovered this surrealist gem in a paragraph about taking photographs at your black light:

    Red sunglasses might be a good idea so your own vision won’t be blinded once the heron has turned off and sank back underground.

    I don’t even know what I might have meant by that. I kind of like it anyway, though.

    If you’re curious about what I freewrote on the midnight prompt, here you go:

    The thing about midnight is, it’s far enough from both sunset and daybreak for none of the diurnal creatures to either still be up or have woken yet. Even early ones. In the countryside, where the bleed of city lights into the sky is minimized, this is the darkest, quietest, most tenuous time of night. You feel alone, isolated, disconnected from everything you know. Step outside of the house and it’s a strange place. The quality of the light is different: the bluish glow of starlight, and silvery moonlight if you are lucky enough to have a full moon. Bats and nightherons and goatsuckers wheel overhead, devouring insects on the wing. Moths flutter past your face silently, thronging your flashlight (if you were foolish enough to bring one) and calling all attention to your presence. You catch hints of movement at the edges of your vision, feel the ghostly wisp of a wing passing by. If someday you decide to further explore this world of blood and dark and quiet, I can recommend a few pieces of equipment. Remember to bring as many friends as you can when you go out on this excursion. You need somebody to watch your back, and they need somebody too.

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    One of the Brood X periodical cicadas, McLean VA

    For today’s prompt I immediately think of B-movie monsters. Often based on, or actually, giant bugs or spiders. But of course, to me bugs and spiders (the real thing) aren’t monsters at all. I actually love watching sci-fi shows and films to see how aliens are often depicted with patterns, body parts, coloring, etc. that are reminiscent of actual insects in the real world. Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and various movies have all done that. I think somebody could write a really interesting study on that, or maybe someone in the special effects or costuming industry could write a sort of resource book for their colleagues and/or authors and scriptwriters. For that matter, it would be a lot of fun to have a bunch of entomologists & naturalists (amateurs & pros alike) get together to watch sci fi and then pick apart the visual effects we recognized!

    As for “monsters” in the news recently, you probably heard about the Brood X (“ten,” as in Roman numerals, not “ecks” as in the alphabet)periodical cicadas that emerged in the Mid-Atlantic area this summer. A lot of the media coverage described them as “invading monsters,” when of course they’d been here all along, just underground. So who’s invading whom?? They were here first. Anyway, I live right in the middle of the Brood X range, so had a blast participating in cicada watches, posting to cicada community science projects like Cicada Safari, etc. I even created a Brood X themed Junior Ranger book for work, although didn’t get it done in time for this year’s emergence. I’ll revise it this winter when things are slower at my park, and get it ready for the next emergence in 2038.

    Sure, I guess if you’re not as much into insects as I am, the periodic cicadas could seem monstrous. They do match the qualities of a lot of b-movie monsters– strange looking, bug-eyed, in huge numbers. But I loved them! It was a blast to have every amateur entomologist out in numbers too. Entomologists were highlighted on the news, in social media, anywhere you looked. That was a great part of the emergence, the sense of community I felt. Nearly everyone was interested in the bugs for once, and we certainly were all experiencing the same event at the same time. I met dozens of budding young entomologists at the park, all as gleeful as I was. I even chatted with some of their parents about activities to continue exploring insects after the cicadas were gone. And creating cicada-themed social media posts was so much fun. One of my favorites was a photo shoot I did where I posed a handful of live, very active, cicadas on my flat hat (part of my work uniform) and scrambled to wrangle them, keep them from wandering off while I took photos. I ended up recruiting some volunteer children who were walking by to help me out with that project. We discussed how to hold the cicadas safely and gently, and they were very good at spotting an escaping cicada and preventing that without harming the insects. I think the parents had just as much fun watching our antics. I know it was one of my favorite days at the park ever, so far.

    My flat hat, the cicadas, and a few of my volunteer cicada wranglers.

    I even read that you can mimic the sound of an acquiescent female cicada by snapping your fingers. I tried it when I saw a male cicada land near me and start calling, and sure enough, it started following my hand around! After a few minutes, though, it flew actually up to my shoulder where it glared at me for a second or two, as if to say, “Stop wasting my time!” Then it flew off. That was very cool to experience.

    There’s no way I can fit all my love for periodic cicadas, and especially Brood X, into a single post. Expect to hear about them again, perhaps even during the Blogtober challenge. But for now, feast your eyes on sa few more shots from this year’s emergence.

    Such beautiful wings!
    I often carried cicadas around to let visitors see them up close! I don’t think they were approved uniform wear, though…

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    Freaky Family

    First, an admission today. I deliberately scheduled this topic to give me an excuse to send birthday wishes to my sister. So:

    🎉 Happy birthday, Cory! 🎉

    I really enjoy having you for my sister.

    Now on to my actual response to today’s Blogtober prompt.

    When you look at the insect/arachnid/arthropod world, though, there aren’t a lot of family relationships in the same way we mean for human families. I mean, when I think “family,” I envision closely related individuals helping each other out, older members helping raise younger ones. Two or so parents, maybe a few grandparents, aunts or uncles, and a couple children. I also know folks who prefer their “family of choice,” longtime friends and/or lovers who’ve become as close and supportive as that network of relatives is supposed to be.

    But many insects don’t parent their young much more than making sure they have a good source of food: either the plant where the eggs are laid, as butterflies & moths do, or provisioning the nest chamber with paralyzed spiders, as some hornets do. The closest behavior to a mammal-type family might be in the social insects: ants, termites, some bees (such as honey bees) and some wasps. One or more queens lay eggs, one group of daughters tends the eggs while another group forages for food. These kinds of insects are called eusocial (see the wikipedia page here for more information). They’re kind of like really huge extended families. I think I would be completely overwhelmed living in a colony like that. Can you imagine having dozens or even hundreds of sisters/siblings, all of you living wing to wing and buzzing together all the time? It might be nice to have so many partners working alongside you, all of you having a shared purpose. But I admit, the introvert side of me is just overwhelmed.

    But another kind of arthropod is different, and still reminiscent of the human family concept. A mother wolf spider carries her egg sac around as she hunts. Then when the eggs hatch, she carries the dozens of tiny spider babies on her back until the babies are grown enough to be on their own. Pretty cool! I once encountered a fairly large spider on a night walk, took a quick cell phone photo, and only later noticed the glnts of light from all the tiny eyes looking back at me from atop the spider’s abdomen! So cool. Wolf spiders don’t spin webs, hunting their prey rather than waiting to trap them. I’ve often encountered wolf spiders while weeding my garden. They’re more than welcome to carry their families through my yard!

    Look at all those little glinting eyes on her back! What a good mom.

    I am grateful to my own family for sometimes carrying me on their figurative backs, when I needed it. My friends who’ve done the same, thank you as well. I hope someday to emulate a mother wolf spider, and be able to carry some of you when you need it. But hopefully, not all of you at once! 😁

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The sky is not completely dark at night. Were the sky absolutely dark, one would not be able to see the silhouette of an object against the sky.

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