As you look for ways to get outside this month to enjoy the last days of summer, I challenge you to take a closer look at a world we typically take for granted and tend to ignore. It’s easy to admire a nest of baby birds, a fawn following its mother, a snake slithering through our garden, or any other larger animals that easily catch our eye. But this month, take a closer look at the micro-realm of insects and spiders.
Insect and spider abundance is at a high this month, as we reach peak temperature and vegetation abundance. There is an overwhelming diversity of species filling every habitat in Minnesota! Giant swarms of moths, caddisflies, and a myriad of other small insects are attracted to our porch lights, facing the danger of lurking spiders, frogs, and toads eager to catch meal. Mosquitoes, deer flies, ants, and orb weavers fill our forests. Our meadows are alive with butterflies, grasshoppers, grass spiders, crickets, bees, leafhoppers, cicadas, crab spiders, and beetles. Our ponds, lakes, and wetlands are spotted with dragonflies, damselflies, horse flies, whirligigs, water striders, and fishing spiders.
Many of us think of these “creepy crawlies” as the worst part of summer. Sure, we might enjoy a beautiful butterfly fluttering by, but wasps, mosquitoes, gnats, ants, and flies? No, thank you. During our time spent despising their annoyance, we are missing out on an opportunity to appreciate an incredible diversity of life, an unimaginable array of adaptations, and most importantly, a fundamental source of energy for much of the Northwoods wildlife we love!
These “pests” provide food for many species of wildlife in Minnesota. Insects feed an unbelievable array of birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and even mammals! They feed our song birds, shore birds, frogs, toads, turtles, snakes, small fish, bats, and shrews. Insects make up a massive portion of the lower end of the food chain, providing plenty of food for our smaller animals, which in turn become food for our larger predators, like osprey, eagles, herons, raccoons, otters, and more. Even many of our seed-loving songbirds put their plant diet on hold in favor of a more protein-rich insect diet during nesting season. Raising young requires a lot of protein, and insects are a perfect source of this much-needed nutrient!
I recently took my niece and nephew on a bug hunt near our house. We quickly found well over 30 species of insects and spiders in under an hour. I made a comment about a particularly beautiful butterfly and my wise-beyond-his-four -years nephew told me, “Auntie, all bugs are beautiful in their own way”. And he was right. These tiny organisms are amazingly well adapted to their own tiny niches in our environment. It is easy to overlook them, but once you start to notice their remarkable diversity and innovative life strategies, it’s hard not to feel in awe of them. So take a moment this month and instead of cursing this new wave of mosquitoes, immerse yourself in the micro-world of insects to see what beauty awaits you! Here are some of the wonders I’ve found. Click on the images for more info and to enlarge them.
Meadowhawk dragonflies abound during August in grassy meadows, marshes, & lakeshores. Mature males are typically red, while females & juveniles are yellow-brown. Species are very difficult to tell apart.
Dragonflies lay their eggs in water. The nymphs that hatch out live in our lakes, ponds, & streams for a significant amount of time before they become aerial.
Nymphs climb out of the water & have one final molt, emerging as an adult & leaving behind their nymph skin, or exodus. Can you spot the jumping spider trying to make a meal out of this failed final transition?
There are 28 species of clubtail dragonflies in the northwoods. This pronghorn clubtail, like all clubtails, prefers to hunt from a stationary position on the ground or other surface, rather than hovering in mid-air.
Damselflies are often mistaken for dragonflies. They can be differentiated by their slender bodies, wings held over their back instead of out to the side, and their weak, fluttery flight. This Familiar Bluet is one of our most common damselflies.
Dragonflies & Damselflies
Tortoise beetles, like this clavate tortoise beetle, are typicall very small (1/4″), round, leaf eating beetles. Although they feed on the foliage of plants, it is rare these beetles cause damage in MN gardens.
Goldenrod soldier beetles are the most common type of soldier beetle. It can be found on many flowers in the prairie, feeding on nectar. It is an active beetle, flying from flower to flower & serving as an important pollinator.
This hairy flower scarab is in the scarab beetle family, along with dung beetles & june bugs! These pollen eaters are bumble bee mimics, their furry appearence often causing them to be mistaken for a bee. A goldenrod crab spider lurks nearby.
Sometimes, you find an unidentifiable surprise! As hard as I’ve searched for an ID, the best guess I’ve received is a beetle larvae, perhaps a ladybird or tortoise beetle. Do any of you know?
This white-spotted sawyer is aptly in the long-horned beetle family. It is a wood boring beetle, feeding mostly on pines & spruce.
This fall field cricket is largely responsible for much of the chirping we hear during this time of the year. Females, like this one, have long oviposters (used in egg-laying) on their backsides.
One of the more easily identifiable grasshoppers, this two-striped grasshopper feeds on broadleaves & grasses.
Each specie of cicadas prodcue their own unique sound using tymbals, organs on the sides of their abdomens which vibrate & resonate into a cavity to produce a humming noise, to attract females. This dogday cicada, like other cicadas in the Northwoods, emerge every year, unlike the periodic cicadas found in other regions of the country that emerge only every 13 or 17 years.
Grasshoppers, Crickets, & Cicadas
White admiral butterflies have an atypical diet for butterflies. They feed on mammal scat, bird guano, puddles, and aphid honey. This butterfly has found a meal from the sweat on my hiking pack.
Not all moths are nocturnal. Some fly during the day, like this toothed somberwing. Some moths are also just as bright & colorful as butterflies. Moths typically have shorter, stouter bodies covered in more hair, feathery looking antennae, & hold their wings flat to their backs instead of up in the air.
Some butterflies can look like moths! This butterfly is one of 230 species in the Northwoods belonging to the skipper family. Their small size, drab coloration, & unusual wing position make it easy to mistake them for a moth. Look for skippers in our grasslands and prairies.
Butterflies abound on our wildflowers & in our gardens this month. Butterfly species have different life strategies for surviving winter. Some migrate & some overwinter as eggs, or larvae, or even as adults. This Aphrodite fritillary will lay eggs in the fall, the caterpillars will hatch & overwinter until spring, when they will wake with voracious appetites!
When we think of caterpillars, many of us jump to thoughts of butterflies. However, often the caterpillars that catch our attention turn into moths. This white-marked tussock moth easily catches our eye now, but will become a small, brown moth easy to overlook.
Butterflies & Moths
Crab spiders are a “wait & ambush” predator, relying on camoflauge as they silently wait for prey to pass. This goldenrod crab spider can often be found on goldenrods & daiseys, & are capable of changing color to match the flower.
Wolf spiders are some of our largest spiders. This beach wolf spider has a mottled coloration, allowing perfect camoflauge in the sand. These spiders do not makes webs, but pursue & pounce on their prey.
This nursery web spider is very common in meadows & forest edges. They do not make webs to hunt, but make a “nursery” web, which the females guards, from a folded over leaf wrapped in silk. Males present the females with flies, & if the female takes it, they will mate.
Some of my favorite spiders are in the orbweaver family. These spiders hunt using the typical web formation we think of when we hear “spider web”. August is the perfect time to find their circular webs, as they become illuminated in the dew of foggy August mornings. This giant lichen orbweaver is quite large, with a web that can stretch up to 4 feet in diameter, & can consume large prey like the green darner dragonfly it has ensnared in this web.
Fishing spiders belong to the nursey web spider family. These very large spiders use their long legs to walk across water. The two middle legs on each side stick straight out to stabilize the spider, while the front & back legs on both sides act as paddles to propel them forward. They use their legs to detect vibrations on the surface of the water & can dive down to catch prey, including small fish!
These green lacwings are very well camoflaged, but if you find them in your gardens, be happy! They are also known as “aphid lions”, feeding primarily on aphids & keeping your plants pest free!
This giant red velvet mite, having 8 legs, is in the Arachnid family & is not an insect at all, rather a close relative of spiders. These mites spend much of the year hibernating underground, but often appear in our woodlands after it rains. The adults feed on ants & other small insects. Their bright red color helps spot these tiny creatures.
This is evidence of the spittle bug, also known as a frog hopper due to the way they move. The nymphs of this bug produce a spit-like substance to hide in while they mature into adults.
Some bugs have mass emergence events from the water. This is a mayfly emergence we caught at sunset in the BWCA. Thousands of them emerged from this lake. When we paddled on to the next lake, there wasn’t a mayfly in sight. Different lakes have different timings for these mass emergences.
This is the larvae of the green lacewing. Often, the larva of an insect looks much different (& perhaps scarier) than it’s adult form. These larvae often cover themself in debri as they wait for prey, usually an aphid, to come by.
Currently, there is a project going on called the Minnesota Bee Atlas, to determine just how many species of bees live in MN. The record is very incomplete. There are many types of bees in MN, & they all play important roles. There are over 20 species of bumblebees, which are important native pollinators.
What better a way could you spend the last days of summer than taking your family outside to get close to nature? A fascination with bugs is innate in many children, so get outside and search for wonders of your own in the micro-realm of insects and spiders!