FL Insects Run Riot in November

December 1, 2015

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


Although there is still interest in the northern fall and winter landscape for the naturalist, certainly it is more fun to see lots of critters moving around instead of mostly being inactive. Thus I find never-ending joy in observing the common insects in Florida during the fall season, which has been warmer than usual this year.

Dragonflies are a source of wonder due to their colors, constant movement and sophisticated behaviors. The brilliant male scarlet skimmer is a knockout in terms of color and you will only see it in southern Florida in N America where it was introduced from Asia. It is generally thought as an exotic to be limited to damaged wetlands and not to pose a threat to native species; that is consistent with their occurrence at Wildflower Preserve which is a wetland area converted to a golf course and now being restored. So enjoy this little beauty and make note of where you observe it and how the male seems to be flaunting its bright color.

I am a big fan of our native bees and of flowers that attract them. This large bee has been attracted to a primrose willow which is an exotic that is primarily found in nutrient enriched wetlands. Although you might consider it undesirable in some respects, it is a beautiful flower which attracts insects to damaged wetlands so I am a supporter of this species in certain locations. Remember to always consider the alternatives in many wetlands which are highly disturbed from their natural conditions and focus on improvement in the underlying causes of eutrophication, not on the symptoms of problems.

A wasp that most people would not be pleased to see is this scary type which comes to our Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). The large yellow blotches are characteristic of scoliid wasps that feed their young on the grubs of scarab or rhinoceros beetles that live in lawns. White ibis often forage in lawns looking for these same grubs. So here is an interesting food web that involves wasps, beetles, birds and grass in our yards.

I enjoy watching the long tailed skippers in our yard trying to obtain nectar from the native firebush which has a long narrow corolla tube. They seem to be successful, which is not the case with many exotic flowers with very narrow flower tubes such as plumbago and ixora. This male queen butterfly is having no difficulty finding nectar in a Mexican milkweed plant although there are various arguments about the desirability of planting these exotic milkweeds.

I found this beautiful common buckeye at Stump Pass park and was surprised to find that it was not a mangrove buckeye (note the large amount of white around the large eyespot on the forewing, and the considerable difference in size of the two eyespots on the hindwing). It is interesting to observe the relative abundance of the widespread common buckeye and its specialized cousin the mangrove buckeye as one nears the coast.

If you find a senna or cassia plant you will often find the beautiful female cloudless sulphur butterfly hovering around to lay its eggs. What is surprising is how few caterpillars are found- they are difficult to spot but the suspicion is growing that the common paper wasp (Polistes) which is often seen crawling on these plants is killing the caterpillars to feed its larvae. Check this out in your yard and consider whether you might want to set some traps to catch wasps and improve the chances for your caterpillars.

I rarely see caterpillars but I did find this interesting lettered hornworm, a type of sphinx moth, when I pulled on a Virginia creeper to remove it. You may be familiar with hornworms from tomato plants or catalpa trees (if you are a bass fisherman and use these caterpillars as bait). They are harmless to people and extremely well camouflaged from their bird predators.

So let’s enjoy the buzz and activity of insects as long as our warm weather lasts.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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