Monthly Archives: July 2011

Hunting horntails

Another adventure only marginally related to caterpillars. This happened a few days ago.

One of the undergrads in the lab, I’ll call him “The Minister of Silly Walks” (“Silly Walks” for short, he does an impeccable John Cleese impression) went with me to get lunch for ourselves and for the caterpillars. For us, that meant the Subway down the street. For the caterpillars that meant breaking branches off of trees as we walked, trying to not look terribly conspicuous carrying armloads of leaves as we casually walked along the street.

On the way, I noticed some odd insects on the trunk of a dying maple tree. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were horntails! They are in the family Siricidae, in the order Hymenoptera along with the ants, bees, and wasps. This was the first time I had ever seen them in the wild, but their anatomy was unmistakable. Wasp-ish but without a constricted waist, elongated body, and the characteristic “horn” at the end of the abdomen. I at first assumed this was an ovipositor, but as I examined the insects more closely, they were not using them to poke into the tree. Instead, they were wiggling their bodies side to side, not moving from their spots even as we approached with our cameras.

It turns out the ovipositor actually originates much further up on the body, and is the thin black line you see extending from the horntail to the tree in the photo above (seen between the middle and hind leg). We determined this species is most likely Tremex columba, and the individuals we observed were all ovipositing females. They lay eggs into dying trees, and their larvae eat the soft bark. These larvae are often parasitized by Megarhyssa wasps, who use their long ovipositors to lay eggs directly into the larvae. Luckily for the horntails, there were no wasps in sight that day.

Interestingly, some females died during this process, and were stuck into the tree by their ovipositor. Silly Walks decided to retrieve a few of these to bring back to the lab. This was one (successful) attempt.

Ah, what entomologists will do for a prize.


This is the first moth I have successfully reared from an egg: Acronicta vinnula.

So exciting! Though of course I had to pin it as a voucher, so its lifespan as an adult was short… that is the fate that awaits all of the moths that hatch from my research. By pinning and measuring them I can determine if my rearing conditions are satisfactory – if they are not, the adults will be stunted (shorter fore-wing lengths) compared to wild caught specimens.

I can’t wait for more adults to start emerging! I have fallen behind with giving larval updates… I already have pupae of A. americana, A. oblinita, A. vinnula, A. falcula, A. hasta, Comachara cadburyi and Polygrammate hebraeicum. I have a bunch more species as young larvae, and a few females I’m waiting to lay eggs for me. Did some collecting last night which was a blast, I will describe that adventure soon.

I helped a crippled old man cross the street

He was a wood turtle (Clemmys insculpta), missing his right front foot.

More technical difficulties

This time it’s a kidney stone.

So my weekend plans were thwarted and I got to spend some quality time with my boyfriend in the hospital.

I’m feeling better now, just waiting for the stone to pass.

I’ll try to start writing once I catch up with everything else in my life!

A new friend

A young praying mantis, keeping me company in the lab, snacking on a little katydid.

A reptilian interlude

Just because they are pretty. I don’t actually know their genders, so I’m anthropomorphizing a bit…

Black racer (Coluber constrictor). I first saw this snake under a large rock, surrounded by fluff that appeared to be bits of a mouse nest. Being the hands-on naturalist that I am, I gently poked at her with a twig until she slithered out from under the rock – striking at me a few times in the process. I followed her until she settled, coiled, poised to strike, continually planning her escape. She kept an eye on every movement my friend and I made. I was amazed she sat still at all instead of escaping right away! Once she was out from under the rock all we did was follow her at a distance until she stopped. After a few minutes of picture taking she saw our poses relax slightly, and she raced off (ha! see what I did there?) into the woods.

I was tempted to catch her, but decided I’d rather get some good photos than come home covered in blood and snake musk. Perhaps another day.

And a lovely little garter (Thamnophis sirtalis). My friend tried to catch her and missed, but she still musked. We decided to leave her alone and try to take photos instead. I managed to snag this one through the undergrowth.

Snake hunting is always a fun break on a warm sunny day.

Can you spot the caterpillar?

I went exploring today, but instead of using my net or beating sheet, I focused on “zenning” for insects. It’s a term used by some lepidopterists I know, referring to calmly looking among the foliage to spot caterpillars. This way they can be observed in their natural positions instead of being shaken off. Of course, this takes lots of training and knowledge (and luck).

Can you spot the caterpillar here?

Read the rest of this entry

Vote for the insect!

The WWF is holding a photography contest, with the grand prize being a trip to photograph polar bears in Canada. There are three categories: Wildlife, Wild Places, and People Connecting with Nature. I submitted a bunch of photos during the submission phase, just as a way to waste 10 minutes.

Nearly 10,000 photos were submitted. 50 were chosen by a panel of judges to be finalists in each category.

Guess who snuck one into the wildlife category!

This is a photo I took during my trip to Ecuador in January. One of the less exciting insects, but I spent about 5 minutes photographing this pretty paper wasp guarding her nest under a leaf. I loved the way the light shone through, and of course those shades of green are my favorite colors. Apparently the judges appreciated the moment I captured, and it’s the only insect photo in the wildlife category!

So if you feel so inclined, vote for me and “like” the photo on facebook! I know I don’t stand much of a chance against tigers and bear cubs and sharks, but it’s worth a shot, right?

CLICK HERE to vote for my photo!

You have to sign up on the upper right hand side of the page. They ask for lots of info in order for you to enter into a raffle to win a reusable mug, but as long as you keep un-checking the ‘sign me up for emails’ link, you won’t get any spam.

If that link doesn’t work, go to the main gallery and search “Brigette” in the search bar.

You can vote once per day, and every day you have a chance at winning a mug.

Thanks for your support! If you don’t feel like signing up to vote, you can always pass on the link or just tell me how a cute wasp should beat out all those mammals.


(Oh, and the U2 concert was amazing, I’m glad I didn’t get bogged down by my grumpy pants and drove up to Montreal to see my friends. Some of my early instar caterpillars kicked the bucket over the weekend, but that’s to be expected early on, overall they did well. Lots of caterpillar photos and stories to share soon!)

Another busy weekend

A few months ago I agreed to go to the U2 concert in Montreal with my friends… and now… I’m regretting it. I hate long lines and crowds and overly priced beer, I have to drive 6 hours to get there, and I don’t want to go more than two days without tending to my caterpillars.

But… I’m going… it’ll be great to see my best friend… so… hopefully all will be well when I return.

I’ll be aiming to get back to the lab sunday evening for a good long session of photography and feeding.

Good morning!

I caught a female Acronicta increta last night. Well, she *could* be A. increta, the whole oak-feeder complex is very convoluted. So far, though, her eggs are wide and increta-like as far as I can tell.

Oh, and remember the Acronicta morula from yesterday? I just checked on her.

At least one batch of eggs hatched last night, and I’ve got a lot of early instars to take care of. I now have five batches of eggs at various stages of development. Some caterpillars are pupating, including my A. americana which I will write a post about soon.

It’s going to be a busy day in the lab!

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

Trying to make sense of the world through science and language.