Polistes is a widespread genus of wasps in the family Vespidae. They’re called paper wasps because they chew on bits of paper, wood, bark, etc, mix it with saliva, and form the resulting pulp into a nest typical of their species. Bugguide.net lists about two dozen kinds of Polistes in North America.
The names “wasp,” “hornet,” “yellowjacket” and “bee” are often applied indiscriminately (but not by BugFans). Wasps share their yellow and black/brown coloration with yellowjackets, but they are slim compared to the sturdy yellowjackets, have a sharp constriction at the “waist” and trail long legs below their bodies as they fly http://bugguide.net/node/view/728337/bgimage. There is a lot of variation in color and in facial and body markings within each species. Male Polistes have curly antennae, and most have yellow faces.
These are social wasps, but populations in the open-faced structures they build are usually measured in dozens rather than in hundreds, like the ground-nesting Yellowjackets and the bald-faced hornets that create hanging, football-shaped nests.
They start building an open-faced structure in spring and they apply an “anti-ant” chemical to the nest’s stem and base. The Polistes queen or foundress cares for the first eggs she lays, feeding the larvae daily in their hexagonal cells. These larvae will be sterile female workers that will forage for food, enlarge the nest, and care for their sisters. Several “sister foundresses” may collaborate to produce the original nest and care for the first brood, but the foundress-in-chief may drive them off when that brood matures. When it’s time to start laying the eggs of males and future queens, she will brook no competition. Unlike a honeybee queen, which becomes an inert, egg-laying machine, the paper wasp queen is up and about, interacting with workers and actively helping to defend her nest.
Eventually, a reproductive generation of males and females is produced, and when they mature and leave, the days of the nest are numbered. Polistes mate in late summer/early fall, and the royal females have extra fat cells and “antifreeze” that allow them to overwinter. The old queen, the males, and any remaining workers soon die.
Adults eat nectar and other sweet liquids, but they hunt for caterpillars to feed the larvae, spreading pollen as they go. The caterpillars are well-chewed, and the liquid “bug juice” is swallowed by the foraging wasp (the wasp on the leaf with the pile of pulp is breaking down a sawfly larva). Bug juice is regurgitated for the youngest larvae, and larger bits are fed to older larvae. Paper wasps target many caterpillars that gardeners consider pests, and in a nod to their pest-control value, people put up nest boxes for them. They are eaten by foxes, a few rodents and some songbirds. Although birds and wasps have been known to tolerate each other, paper wasps can be a problem for cavity-nesting birds, including those that use man-made nest boxes.
Polistes wasps have developed behaviors that seem, well, intelligent. With all the wasps around, how do Polistes tell a sister from a stranger? First, each paper wasp carries the odor of the nest it grew up in, a hydrocarbon “signature” that comes from a combination of the essences given off by the plants that were masticated to build the nest and the specific chemicals that the foundress bestows on her eggs. Second, the pheromones (chemical scents) given off by a wasp match those of its nest-mates. Finally, like humans and chimps, Polistes wasps have the amazing ability to remember and recognize the faces of their companions, a skill that helps them know who’s who in the hierarchy of the colony.
The GOLDEN or NORTHERN PAPER WASP (Polistes fuscatus) is a common, native paper wasp that is found across the US and into Canada, anywhere it can find wood to turn into nest material. According to bugguide.net, Polistes means “founder of a city” and fuscatus means “smoky-winged.” They’re just under an inch long, and many have yellow legs and bright cinnamon-colored markings on the abdomen.
Fertile “sister foundresses” that are allowed to stay in the nest must recognize a single queen as dominant. They are relegated to the role of worker, and any eggs they lay will be eaten by the foundress (if they stay, the co-founder’s ovaries eventually become vestigial). The foundress expresses her superiority through a language of threatening postures and by “darting” (dashing) at her offspring; actual fights are uncommon. Darts are more about “management” than they are about aggression (sort of a “Don’t make me come over there!” warning). Inactivity is the main sin that will earn a dart, but darts are also used to tell workers to switch to a different task. A slothful wasp takes a dart by the foundress more seriously than to one by a fellow worker. The foundress may communicate with developing larvae by standing near the egg cells and vibrating – sending messages through the substrate.
Enter the EUROPEAN PAPER WASP (Polistes dominula) (dominula means “little mistress” or “lady ruler”). Common in Europe, it hopped across The Pond in 1978, immigrating to the Boston area (or alternatively, to the New Jersey Pine Barrens in 1968) and spreading out from there. It’s now found across the northern US and into Canada. EPWs are a shade smaller than NPWs, and because they are patterned strongly in black and yellow, they are often mistaken for Yellowjackets. Their antennae are predominately orange.
Because it nests a bit earlier than native paper wasps (and may re-hab a nest from the previous year), and its eggs and larvae develop faster than native Polistes, and it uses a wider variety of nest sites, the EPW has been a very successful colonizer. It’s considered “invasive” and has replaced native species in some areas, with as-yet-undetermined consequences.
The general story of the EPW’s life cycle is similar to that of the NPW; they go from egg to adult in four to six weeks. EPW target caterpillars and non-caterpillars alike. They are lauded as biological controls of hornworms, tent caterpillars, and cabbage worms, but several articles warned that butterfly numbers go down when EPWs move in.
Yes, they sting, and there’s disagreement about how dangerous they are. Some write-ups say that they won’t bother you unless you are close to their (often well-concealed) nest; others say that they are extremely aggressive. The stinger packs a double whammy – it’s a sharp jab with a pointed object accompanied by the injection of venom from poison sacs in her abdomen, and she can sting over and over. Venom was originally designed to help wasps subdue prey, but it is equally effective at discouraging predators and other large, lumbering intruders. Studies show that the brighter the coloration of a female EPW, the larger her poison glands are and therefore the more toxic she is (aposematic coloration, folks).
Wasp venom is an amazing liquid, a cocktail of chemicals including enzymes to break down cell membranes; substances to stop the flow of blood and keep the venom localized; neurotransmitters to insure that the pain messages keep on coming, and other chemicals that induce swelling and itching. It’s an all-purpose liquid; beyond its toxicity, a female’s venom contains sex pheromones that attract males and alarm pheromones that rouse other members of the nest, making them “touchier” and marking the target for its sisters to find.
The BugLady photographed this sturdy beetle one mid-spring day on water buttercup, and it took her a long time to stumble across what she hopes is its identity. It has no Common name so the BugLady arbitrarily dubs it the buttercup beetle (Prasocuris vitatta) - bb) (lower case). Prasocuris vitatta has gone through a half dozen Scientific names in the past 230 years, sometimes losing, then regaining the species name “vittata,” which means “having a streak or band of color” (and once being promoted to trivittata). Bugguide.net calls it “an uncommon black-and-yellow striped species found on Caltha palustris” (marsh marigold) (which will be blooming soon. Honest). It’s a member of the huge family Chrysomelidae (the leaf beetles).
Bb’s habitat needs often involve sunny wetland edges in the eastern half of North America where members of the buttercup family grow, and they’re also found on the introduced Common/meadow/tall buttercup that grows along roadsides and woodland edges. This beetle was photographed on water buttercup, whose flower stalk extends a few inches above the water’s surface.
To say that there isn’t very much information out there about buttercup beetles would be an understatement, and there’s scarcely more about the other three members of its genus that reside in North America. They operate below the radar; their internet presence consists largely of pictures (or not) and of mention on various national/state/park/museum collection catalogs. The related Prasocuris ovalis, about which internet sources say “Images not available, description not available, map not available,” also eats buttercups.
Both the adults and larvae lunch on buttercup leaves, with the larvae generally feeding on the undersides of a leaf. Adults will also eat nectar and pollen. Buttercups notoriously contain caustic chemicals (in olden times, beggars would rub the juices of Tall/Meadow buttercup on their skin to raise blisters and so, to look more pitiful). Like the larvae of the Imported Willow Leaf Beetle, of recent BOTW fame, the defense systems buttercup beetle larvae may enjoy a chemical boost from the plants they eat.
Buttercup beetle oddity #1: Though most references say that they are found on plant surfaces at the water’s edge/above the water line, they are mentioned in a publication called “Semiaquatic Chrysomelidae of Michigan.” And according to “Entomologia Edinensis, or a Description and History of the Insects Found in the Neighborhood of Edinburgh [Scotland]” (1834), the larvae of another member of the genus, Prasocuris phellandrii, “inhabit the interior of the stalks of aquatic plants, on the leaves of which the perfect [adult] insects also feed.”
Buttercup beetle oddity #2: A paper titled External parasites of birds and the fauna of bird's nests, published in 1925, lists the buttercup beetle among species found in the nests of Bluebirds and Robins in the winter (when the birds are not using them). According to the study, these were adult beetles that, it was hypothesized, were hibernating/sheltering in the nest. The BugLady was not able to find out anything about the life history of bb’s, but this study suggests that they might overwinter as adults.
Speaking of Prasocuris phellandrii. About two weeks after she photographed the buttercup beetle on the water buttercup at the ephemeral pond, the BugLady found another “vitate” beetle in the same location. It sure looks like Prasocuris phellandrii, , but we’re out on that limb again http://www.biol.uni.wroc.pl/cassidae/European%20Chrysomelidae/prasocuris%20phellandrii.htm. Prasocuris phellandrii is a European-Middle Eastern beetle that has made its way across The Pond and now can be found across much of North America. It likes wetlands, where it feeds on flowers and leaves of water parsnip - and, yes, marsh marigold.
Side note: Visit an ephemeral pond near you. The fairy shrimp are in residence. Don’t miss the show!
Baskettails are among the early dragonflies of spring, their flight periods usually completed by mid-summer. They are members of the family Corduliidae (the Emeralds), dragonflies with evocative names like sundragon, river cruiser, boghaunter, and shadowdragon. Within the Corduliidae, Baskettail taxonomy is a little confusing. In his comprehensive Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, Paulson places them all in the genus Epitheca, but other sources divide them up into two (sometimes three) genera Epicordulla, Epitheca, and Tetragoneuria.
Medium-sized and generally lacking the metallic coloration and dramatic, kryptonite-green eyes of other Emerald family members, baskettails favor brown bodies with yellow spots down the sides. Their clear wings may sport dark splotches – or not. According to Dragonflies through Binoculars, “our baskettails include the large and distinctive Prince Baskettail, and 8 small species, the ‘sparrows of the dragonflies,’ which are very difficult to identify.” They are described as agile and acrobatic flyers that often form feeding swarms in clearings away from water and that can consume their prey while in flight. When they perch, it’s vertically or at an angle.
Both the immature (naiad) and the adult are hairy. Tiny pieces of debris adrift in its underwater habitat get trapped in the naiad’s hair, hiding it from fish and other predators as it lurks on a pond floor. Hair on an adult’s body, especially on its thorax, helps keep this spring species warm. As Cinthia Berger explains in her book Dragonflies, “like real fur, the fuzz helps hold in the heat generated by those muscle contractions [contractions of the flight muscles, which raise the temperature within the thorax].
The name comes from the mass (“basket”) of eggs the female forms and then carries around at the tip of her abdomen. According to bugguide.net, the genus name Epitheca is derived from epi (above) and theca (pouch or basket); females cart their eggs around, sometimes all day, abdomen elevated, looking for the right spot to deposit them.
The right spot has shallow water with floating-leaved vegetation, and there are different accounts of what happens when she finds it. She either attaches her ball of eggs (hundreds of them) to a submerged plant and then departs, or she drags/taps her abdomen along the water’s surface, unraveling her string of eggs as she goes. In either case, the once-compact egg mass swells into a long strand, from six inches to several feet long and an inch wide.
A choice location attracts numerous females, and multiple strings of eggs may drape the aquatic vegetation like streamers. The eggs stay near the surface in water that is warm and oxygenated, and development is fast. If a cluster of eggs is very dense, those in the center may not mature. Sometimes algae infiltrate the egg strands, increasing through their photosynthesis the oxygen available to the developing naiads. Where many females have dropped their eggs, high concentrations of naiads will shortly be found.
The BugLady has been guilty of putting all of her Baskettail pictures in one basket (so to speak). It wasn’t until she started researching this episode that she noticed that she may have (at least) two species of Baskettail, the Common and (possibly) the Spiny. Or not. Once again, the BugLady is treading where angels fear to – identifying baskettails using photos is “iffy.”
COMMON BASKETTAILS (Epitheca ((or Tetragoneuria)) cynosura) are found in still or very slow-moving waters in the Eastern half of North America. There’s some discussion about the meaning of cynosura; the consensus is that it comes from the Greek cynosure, meaning “dog’s tail,” and refers to the male’s cerci (abdominal appendages), which curve outward away from each other and (allegedly) look like a dog’s tail wagging back and forth. The cerci along with the dark, triangular patches at the base of the wing are unique to this species. The eyes of juvenile CBs are reddish brown, turning blue or green as they age. They’re about 1 ½ inches long.
Male CBs patrol shoreline territories three to ten yards long, especially in the afternoon, looking for females, hovering over likely egg-laying spots, too busy defending their turf to feed much. Breeding often takes place away from water.
The BugLady found the CB listed in an amazing report called “Observations of dragonflies visiting lights at night” http://opinicon.wordpress.com/2010/08/14/observations-of-dragonflies-visiting-lights-at-night/. This Canadian study documented nocturnal activity in several species of migratory and non-migratory dragonflies. Nocturnal hunting behavior has not been observed, and researchers are mystified.
The SPINY BASKETTAIL (Epitheca/Tetragoneuria spinigera) is named for the spine that is present at the base of the male’s cerci. Unlike the eastern-oriented CB, the SB is found from coast to coast over the northern half of the US and into southern Canada. Its habitat preferences are similar to the CB’s, but it tolerates more acid waters.
At about 1 ¾ inches long, it’s a shade larger that the CB. Adults have green eyes, and juveniles, reddish brown ones. Wings are generally spot-free, but some have small, dark areas at the base of the hind wing (CBs generally have noticeable spots that are greatly reduced in some individuals - by their cerci and facial markings shall you know them).
Because the SB (like many other species of dragonfly) overwinters as a mature naiad, it’s ready to complete its transformation when the waters warm. There are accounts of mass emersions of SBs http://slatermuseum.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html, with dragonflies hanging from every branch
Like the male CB, the male SB also patrols at the water’s edge, stopping to hover and scan the horizon for females. Adults rarely rest.
The (alleged) SB sitting on the screen is afflicted with water mites, the spheres on the last few segments of its abdomen. Larval water mites go through a parasitic stage, attaching themselves to other aquatic invertebrates, including immature dragonflies and damselflies. When their host is making its final molt into the adult stage, the mites politely step aside, and then reattach when the exuvia has been shed and it’s time for take-off.
Paulson says that to find Baskettails, “Go out early and look in sunny clearings, where they may be perched in the open trying to warm up to start their feeding flight.”
It’s been a long winter, and the BugLady is anxious to embrace the buzzing, flying, creeping inhabitants of our world. There are many (many) exciting Citizen Science opportunities for people who enjoy being up to their elbows in Nature. Here are some of the projects that rely on data collected by us – the non-scientist volunteers. If none of these is your cup of tea, check with your local Nature Center, Land Trust, Extension office, DNR, Natural Resources Foundation, etc to find out about butterfly counts, dragonfly counts, BioBlitzes, and more, that are, literally, on your doorstep (if you insist on watching things that have backbones, try a Christmas Bird Count or a Great Backyard Bird Count). Brief disclaimer – the BugLady has not actually test-driven these projects, but they have (mostly) clear websites and are run by responsible organizations, and many of them have been recommended by people who do use them). There are some information-packed websites here, fun to explore even if you don’t sign up for a project. Presenting, in their own words:
MONARCH WATCH - http://www.monarchwatch.org/
University of Kansas. Our website provides a wealth of information on the biology and conservation of Monarch butterflies. Additionally, we encourage children to showcase their research or school projects on our website and we involve them in real science with the tagging program.
MONARCH LARVA MONITORING PROJECT (MLMP) - http://www.mlmp.org/
Developed at the University of Minnesota to collect long-term data on larval monarch populations and milkweed habitat. The goal of the project is to better understand how and why monarch populations vary in time and space, with a focus on monarch distribution and abundance during the breeding season in North America.
SCHOOL OF ANTS - http://www.schoolofants.org/
A citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. Learn how to create your own sampling kit, sample your backyard or schoolyard, and get your collection back to us so that we can ID the ants and add your species to the big School of Ants map. Together we'll map ant diversity and species ranges across North America!
DRAGONFLY POND WATCH PROJECT - http://www.xerces.org/dragonfly-migration/pondwatch/ A volunteer-based program of the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP) to investigate the annual movements of five major migratory dragonfly species in North America. By visiting the same wetland or pond site on a regular basis, participants will be able to note the arrival of migrant dragonflies moving south in the fall or north in the spring, as well as to record when the first resident adults of these species emerge in the spring.
THE DRAGONFLY SWARM PROJECT - http://thedragonflywoman.com/dsp/report/ Help Dragonfly Woman explore the relatively unexplored world of dragonfly swarms. If you see static/feeding swarms or migratory swarms, send a report to Dragonfly Woman. She’s learning amazing things.
GREAT SUNFLOWER PROJECT - BACKYARD BEE COUNT - http://www.greatsunflower.org/ The Great Sunflower Project was launched in 2008 to help scientists assess urban, suburban and rural bee populations. We take counts of the number and types of pollinators visiting plants (especially sunflowers). You can participate by growing some pollinator friendly plants in your yard and then recording how many pollinators visit them. In 2013, we will start accepting pollinator counts from any species of plant and will not just focus on bees.
POLLINATORS - http://www.xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/ The BugLady is including this because it’s a huge site, crammed with information, with a number of projects buried in various categories.
THE LOST LADYBUG PROJECT - http://www.lostladybug.org/ -
Over the past twenty years several native ladybugs that were once very common have become extremely rare. During this same time ladybugs from other places have greatly increased both their numbers and range. This is happening very quickly and we don’t know how, or why, or what impact it will have on ladybug diversity or the role that ladybugs play in keeping plant-feeding insect populations low. Join us in finding out where all the ladybugs have gone so we can try to prevent more native species from becoming so rare.
FIREFLY WATCH - https://legacy.mos.org/fireflywatch/about_firefly_watch
The Museum of Science (Boston) has teamed up with researchers from Tufts University and Fitchburg State College to track the fate of these amazing insects. With your help, we hope to learn about the geographic distribution of fireflies and their activity during the summer season. Fireflies also may be affected by human-made light and pesticides in lawns, so we hope to also learn more about those effects. [BugFans - Be sure to visit the virtual habitat page at this site.]
VANESSA MIGRATION PROJECT - http://www.public.iastate.edu/~mariposa/homepage.htm
Learn how your observations as a Citizen Scientist can add to the knowledge about the Vanessa butterflies (Painted Lady, American Lady, and Red Admiral), migratory butterflies whose periodic population irruptions in the Southwest bring masses of them into God’s Country. [The BugLady looked at this site a few years ago; at present it’s listed as temporarily off-line, but keep trying.]
GREAT LAKES WORM WATCH - http://www.nrri.umn.edu/worms/
Researchers at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere have documented dramatic changes in native hardwood forest ecosystems when exotic earthworms invade.…. The “Join the Research Team” section of the Great Lakes Worm Watch site has information on how to conduct your own earthworm research projects, how to analyze collected data and much more.
NATURE’S NOTEBOOK - https://www.usanpn.org/nn/about Gathers information on plant and animal phenology across the U.S. to be used for decision-making on local, national and global scales to ensure the continued vitality of our environment. Join more than 6,000 other naturalists across the nation in taking the pulse of our planet. You'll use scientifically-vetted observation guidelines, developed for over 900 species.
PROJECT NOAH - http://www.projectnoah.org/ A tool to explore and document wildlife and a platform to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. ….Smartphones are the butterfly nets of the 21st Century. Project Noah lets people upload photos of plants and wildlife around them, creating a map of the natural world and contributing to scientific research in the process.
iNATURALIST.ORG - http://www.inaturalist.org/ From hikers to hunters, birders to beach-combers, the world is filled with naturalists, and many of us record what we find. If enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature.
WISCONSIN NATURE MAPPING - http://www.wisnatmap.org/default.htm A biodiversity survey program that allows citizens, students, and professionals to map their observations of Wisconsin wildlife onto an online map of Wisconsin. Those observations become part of a statewide database.
WISCONSIN CITIZEN SCIENCE CLEARINGHOUSE - http://wiatri.net/CBM/
Go outside – look at bugs.
The Bug Lady