Katydid Watching

I was getting ready to clip a head of hydrangeas transforming from their cool summer blues to warm autumn reds, when I noticed I was being watched. Stock still in the middle of that very cluster was a large green insect of the grasshopper and cricket family–a fork-tailed bush katydid.

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How to tell a grasshopper from a katydid? Look at the antennae. Grasshoppers have short antennae, only about the size of their own head, while katydids’ antennae are much longer.

These katydids are the bane of citrus growers as their favorite food is immature orange rind. Like food testers, they like to take only one or two bites. Unfortunately, even those little bites of the rind ruin the developing fruit. Fork-tailed bush katydids are widespread in the U.S. and happily feed on any tree and shrub leaves.

These katydids are masters of camouflage and are more often heard than seen. The males have a  “file and scraper” adaptation on their shoulders, which they rub together to attracts the ladies, making that “s-s-s-s-s-t” sound of summer. Before dying off in the winter, the katydids will lay their eggs between a leaf’s layers, to emerge in the spring.

At this time, the katydids will probably be on their last instar, so they are full grown and most easily sighted. If you are out in your yard or your woods looking closely at some flowers or leaves, don’t be surprised if there is someone looking right back at you!

Look Into My Eyes

Rippling across the pavement in no apparent hurry was a chubby orange creature with a mission. Two large yellow eyespots decorated its hood, with blue markings masquerading as light reflections off the eyes. A black band completed the disguise, making the top of this caterpillar look like a menacing snake.

Click here to watch a swallowtail caterpillar with a mission

In reality it was a harmless swallowtail caterpillar, its tiny hooded head tucked under the fake head.  But if disturbed, it takes the disguise one step further. Arching its upper body backward, the caterpillar unfurls its antennae, which look like a forked snake tongue, and releases a foul smell.

 

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By night, the swallowtail caterpillar hides from predators inside leaves that it seals shut with its silk. By day, it is on the move, looking for mates, food, or anchors to attach itself to for pupating.

Another clever survival tactic–after they are done feeding on a leaf, they nibble it off at the stem and let it fall to the ground. Why this extra housekeeping step? Birds are on the lookout for chewed-up leaves as an indicator for the presence of caterpillars. By discarding the evidence, they can fool the bird.

The orange color of this swallowtail only emerges when the larvae is ready to form its chrysalis and pupate. In earlier stages it is green, to better blend in with leaves and grass.

The swallowtail caterpillar feeds on many of the native shrubs and trees in our eastern woods, such as the spicebush, the tulip tree, and the sassafras. 

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The adult eastern swallowtail sheds its caterpillar goofiness and emerges as the striking yellow, black, and blue butterfly we often see in our gardens and woods. If you would like to entice these beautiful creatures to your garden, plant natives such as jewelweed, thistles, milkweed, dogbane, lantana, or sweet pepperbush.  

Tiny Neighbors

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Sitting on your patio on a sunny afternoon, you may have seen a tiny red dot, small as a pencil point, crawl around at lightning speed, surprising for its size. These are the clover mites, tiny and fascinating creatures, ubiquitous in suburban living.

Many people find these teeny creatures alarming because of their bright red color, which they attribute to blood-sucking. In fact, the red is the mite’s body pigment. Clover mites are not blood feeders and will not harm people or pets. They are not fire ants. As their name implies, they feed on grasses and clovers. Because of their tiny size, they may slip in as visitors inside your house. Be aware that crushing them will create unwanted red stains. They cannot reproduce indoors and if left alone will dehydrate after a few days.

These tiny arachnids have an incredible reproductive power–parthenogenesis. The eggs can hatch without fertilization and hence their entire population is female! Each adult lays about 70 eggs, and the offspring are genetically identical to their mother. One wonders how the creatures survive over the long term with so little genetic diversity.

Clover mites do not like extreme hot or cold temperatures. During summer they enter a dormant torpor called aestivation. The winter is spent in their eggs, in some protected area. Spring and fall is when the mites run rampant. But life is short and sweet for the clover mite. They only have about two weeks to suck on sweet plant juices before their time is up.

Next time you see these little wonders, refrain from smashing them, and instead admire their bright color, speed, and survival abilities.