Tag Archives: insects

sphinx moths

Along with the flowers, spring brings its share of insects. I could do without the ants that are now beginning to explore the interior of the house, but the sphinx moths that started to appear in huge numbers last week are about as cool as any bug out there.


This is the white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata. Although its main range is the American West and northern Mexico, the species can be found all over the US. (Check out the writeup at the terrific Butteryflies and Moths of North America site for more information.)

There are dozens of other sphinx moths, including the adults of the notorious tomato and tobacco hornworms, familiar to almost anyone who’s tried to grow a tomato plant. The caterpillars of the white-lined sphinxes, however, don’t seem to have the reputation for going on the same sort of sustained rampages against our vegetable gardens.

The way these large, muscular insects maneuver and hover over flowers as they feed reminds you of hummingbirds, and in fact they’re also called “hummingbird moths.” As with hummingbirds, they enjoy nectar-rich flowers, such as this Hot Lips sage. You can see these moths feeding during the daylight, but the populations really come out after the sun sets, forming quietly buzzing clouds at dusk or before the sun rises.

In no way do I consider myself an insect photographer. I quickly found out how frustrating it can be to photograph fast-moving moths with a camera that refuses to focus in the dark. These are the only two photos I kept out of a couple dozen tries.

sphinx-moth-with-tongue-extendedThis second image is no stunner, but you can begin to make out the amazing long tongue that the moth uses to lap up the tasty nectar.

If you’re into insect photos done as well as anyone out there can do them, you should take a look at the work of Bob Parks. He was working at San Diego’s Museum of Natural History when I first met him ten or so years ago. I don’t know of anyone as passionate and devoted to bugs and photos of bugs. That passion shows in his technically outstanding and patiently rendered pictures. There’s a nice biographical writeup of him at the SDNHM site.

carnivorous plants in action

I’ve had a couple recent posts on insects. While I’ll on the subject it looks like there’s a whole subculture of insect snuff films on YouTube. Notice that the “no animals were harmed during the filming of this video” assurance appears nowhere on any of these videos… Here are a couple showing droseras in action:

You can read up on how the insides of the sarracenia pitcher plants are lined with hairs that point downwards, into “the drink,” making escape almost impossible for small insects. Or you can see it for yourself:

And what collection of carnivorous plant videos would be complete without one showing a venus flytrap doing its thing:

ant farm[ers]

So…you think humans are the only critters who farm and garden? Think again. From a Science in Brief column in yesterday’s LA Times comes this about ants:

Study finds ants longtime farmers

Ants took up farming some 50 million years ago, according to researchers who traced the ancestry of farmer ants.

An analysis of the DNA of farmer ants traced them back to an original ancestor — a sort of Adam ant, at least for the types that raise their own food, according to a paper published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the last 25 million years, ants have developed different types of farming, including the well-known leaf-cutter ants. Leaf-cutter ants don’t eat the leaves they collect. Instead, they grow fungus on the leaves and eat the fungus.

Only four types of animals are known to farm for food — ants, termites, bark beetles and, of course, humans. All four cultivate fungi.

If you have online access to that journal, you can read the full article at: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/0711024105v1. There’s no research on whether ants prefer to create formal gardens or naturalistic ones, though I’d guess aesthetics aren’t hight on their list of concerns.

To that, I’d also add that some ants are also livestock farmers in that they cultivate other animals. Aphids and ants have a symbiotic relationship, with ants tending aphids to share in the sweet nectar they exude. And all last year we had a major ant trail leading from the ground into the grapefruit tree, where ants and scale insects had set up shop on the skins of the young grapefruits. It didn’t seem to affect the grapefruits too much, though we always had to remember to scrub them clean before serving them up. Here’s a link to a related story on ants and scale insects in tropical coffee plantations.

in defense of bees

A lot of nurseries around here tout plants as being hummingbird- or butterfly-friendly. Those little critters are awfully decorative and fun to have around, but the major work of pollination belongs to the bees. For instance the California almond crop supplies something like 80% of the world’s almond exports, and the crop wouldn’t be possible without all the hives that are trucked into the Central Valley about this time of year. According to the Los Angeles Times, farmers now are spending more on renting hives than they are on watering their trees.

A recent article, The Headbonker’s Ball, in Orion Magazine has a great article on the Urban Bee Project, a project headed by UC Berkeley prof Gordon Frankie that’s designed to educate folks about the value of having bee-friendly gardens. Their Urban Bee Gardens site crawls with all sorts of information on the value of bees and what you can do to welcome them into your garden. Some of it’s under construction still, but there’s already lots of useful information there.

One of the cores of the site is a list of plants that are friendly to bees, and the list is broken into spring plants and summer plants so that you can plan a progression of food sources for the little guys. The list is a little Berkeley-centric, though many of the plants on the list would grow plenty of other places. At first you might worry that you’d have to plant oddball ugly plants just to the do the right thing, but incorporating bee-friendly plants requires no such thing. A lot of the selections are really common garden plants, and you probably have a number of them in your garden already: lavenders, penstemons, salvias, cosmos, sunflowers, and the like.

With all the plants out there the list couldn’t possibly list every bee-friendly plant out there.Various thymes, for instance, have a reputation for being major bee party pads. The Berkeley project came to its conclusions by sending people out into gardens and having them count how many bees visited a plant in a certain time period. (Not a bad way to conduct research, eh?) You could do the same. If there’s something not on the list but you notice that the bees like it, why not plant a little more of it? Give the hummingbirds and butterflies some company.