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Flight of the feather-horneds

February 25, 2020

For two weeks of the year, the last week in February and the first week in March (give or take depending on the season) the Feather-horned Beetles (Rhipicera sp.) take flight and the air is filled with these large, slow-flying insects (pictured below). The male sports large feather-like antennae which it uses to detect a mating pheromone emitted by the female beetle. The female beetle has simple rod-like antennae.

Feather-horned Beetle (Rhipicera femorata) DSCN6934

Little is known about these insects so to repeat a previous blog it is thought the larvae of this beetle are parasitic on the larvae of cicadas. The white patches on the exoskeleton are actually tufts of hairs. I think it is a case of a picture speaks a thousand words!

z Feather-horned Beetle (Rhipicera sp.) DSCN6905

My challenge this year is to take a picture of the female beetle. Not as impressive in the antennae department but a key part of the story.

More tales from the Swamp Gum

February 21, 2020

Following on from reporting about the tiny critters inhabiting the leaves and flowers of a local Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus ovata), the insects I was actually searching for also turned up – Flower Wasps. Regular readers of this blog probably think I obsess about Flower Wasps and they are probably right. They are my favourite insect.

As mentioned in many! previous blogs there is sexual dimorphism in Flower Wasps. The male wasp is winged and is much larger than the female wasp. The female wasp does not have wings so to get to the nectar rich flowers at the top of a tree such as a Swamp Gum it has to entice a male to mate with her. During and after that act the male wasp flies to the higher branches to feed on the nectar and the female wasp hangs on for the ride to also feed. It is one thing to read about and know this but it is truly magic to watch it in action. The local Swamp Gum being bent over offers that opportunity as the flowers are near ground level. Pictured below is a male (winged) and female wasp feeding (and mating) at the flowers. After feeding, the female wasp drops to the ground where it searches for beetle larvae on which to lay its eggs.

The vast majority of adult wasps are nectar feeders (and therefore pollinators). Another species turning up to feed at the Swamp Gum is also a regular to this blog, a Gasteruptiid Wasp. Pictured below is a male Gasteruptiid feeding. The female is recognisable by having a white tipped ovipositor about half the length of its body in size. Female wasps lay their eggs in the nests of Blue-banded Bees. They are a regular at the Blue-banded B&B.

This Swamp Gum could be a source from many stories to come – unless the heavy downpour last night washed out all the flowers. Stay tuned.

All creatures small and smaller

February 19, 2020

Very often we don’t spend the time to stop and smell the roses…or in this case smell the honey. Many eucalypts are flowering at the moment and you can be forgiven for not noticing given the flowers are pale yellow and high up in the trees. Locally there is a Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus ovata) with its crown bent over so that the flowers are at ground level. The heady scent of honey is attracting all sorts of critters, in particular wasps. So I have been staking out the tree to try and photograph some wasps for an upcoming talk.

Whilst sitting and waiting I noticed all manner of small insects also attracted to the rich nectar source. These I would not have noticed (you can get some idea of their size by comparing what they are sitting on) unless I had stopped and watched. Pictured left and below is an Ant Fly (Family Sepsidae), so called because they usually gather in large groups and from a distance look exactly like ants. The adults are nectar feeders. The one pictured is ‘bubbling’, the practice of evaporating all the water out of the nectar so that it can consume more of ‘the good stuff’. These flies are usually found around manure where they lay their eggs. The larvae are efficient composters of it.

Smaller still was this Chalcid Wasp pictured (right) on a eucalypt leaf. Again the adults are nectar feeders. Most species from this family of wasps are parasitoid – they lay their eggs on a live but paralysed host i.e. they are parasitic but resulting in the host’s death. Some species though are termed hyperparasitoid (now focus) they lay their eggs on the eggs of wasps that lay their eggs on a host. Small in size…large in confusion.

I wonder what the term is for a wasp that lays its eggs on the eggs of a Chalcid Wasp?

More Swamp Gum tales to follow!

A prickly story

February 16, 2020

Just after we put a post about Short-beaked Echidnas on this blog in early January, we discovered an echidna burrow with a puggle (young) in it only 30m from our house, and the adult featured in that post was most likely the mother. We only located the burrow when we noticed a small patch on an old pile of top-soil was moving up and down, as if it were “breathing”. When a bit of soil was brushed away, a creature with short sharp spines was revealed.

Puggle being fed

Puggle’s first outing

After setting up a remote camera, we were able to record the comings and goings of the mother over the next month or so, and occasionally watch her during the daytime. Her visits to the burrow were an average of 4 days apart (maximum of 7 days), and after uncovering the entrance and getting in with the puggle, she spent an average of 2 hours feeding it, before packing the entrance with soil and heading off to forage for ants and termites. With such intermittent feeding the echidna milk is necessarily very rich (imagine being fed only once a week!) and the puggle ingests up to 20% of its body weight.

When first discovered the puggle was probably about 4 – 5 months old, and is now almost fully spined and getting ready to leave the nest. In fact a few days ago we watched as the young one appeared and ventured off on its first little jaunt. It’s a bit wobbly on its pins, but a capable digger and very attuned to sounds and smells, immediately becoming a partially buried prickly ball when feeling threatened.

It eventually made its way back to the burrow and during its mother’s next visit we were able to sneak up and record the repetitive rasping sound of the puggle suckling on its mother’s milk patch (click audio below) as they lay only partially-buried beside each other.

There is limited knowledge and conflicting reports on echidna weaning. One reference has the young not weaned until about 7 months old after which mother and offspring may continue to share shelter sites and forage together until the puggle is 9 – 12 months old. Another reference states the mother has no further contact with her offspring after weaning it at about 6 months in mid-January to the end of February.

If the latter is the case, we can only hope our puggle’s natural curiosity is sufficient to let it find food and survive out in the big wide world, without heading onto the road!

More photos below:

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It pays to be lazy (and sneaky)

February 14, 2020

Arguably some of the most beautiful insects in Australia are the Cuckoo Wasps (pictured). Sometimes called Jewel Wasps the colours are due to the way their multi-layered and pitted exoskeletons interact with light – the same as for Stag Beetles. They are a frequent visitor to the Blue-banded B&B. I found to my surprise that they are not at all interested in the Blue-banded Bees nesting in the structure like many of the other wasp visitors, but rather the Mud Wasps building nests there.

Cuckoo Wasps are named because the process by which they rear their young uses the same principle employed by Cuckoos, laying eggs in the nest of another species. Cuckoo Wasps are parasitoid meaning they are parasitic but the end point is the death of the host. Furthermore they are klepto-parasitoid (from the Greek word kleptein meaning to steal). They steal both nests and the food provisions from other wasps.

Throughout summer wasps such as Potter Wasps and Mud-dauber Wasps are busily constructing mud nests of different shapes and sizes. Into these nests they place spiders, caterpillars, etc (depending on the species of wasps) that have been paralysed. The female wasp then lay eggs on the prey and seals the nest. When the eggs hatch they have a supply of fresh food to eat.

In steps the Cuckoo Wasp. The Cuckoo Wasp does not build a nest. It waits around the nest site of a Potter Wasp, for example and when the Potter Wasp leaves the nest to hunt for more food the Cuckoo Wasp lays its eggs in the Potter Wasp nest. The Cuckoo Wasp eggs generally hatch first. The larvae consume the stored food supply and then the Potter Wasp eggs.

The pictured wasp flew into the house and was trying to get out. Though temporarily detained, no wasps were hurt making this blog.

Aye, Aye, Skipper

February 11, 2020

Australian butterflies are divided into six families. Some of these families have members which are familiar to most people, for example the Common Brown is of the Nymph family, the Cabbage White is a White and any of the swallowtails are of course of the Swallowtail family. One of the lesser known families is Hesperiidae, commonly known as the Skippers. The appellation comes from the tendency for this group of butterflies to dart and skip low over the ground when in flight. Pictured is a member of the family, a Greenish Grass-dart (Ocybadistes walkeri).

Skippers are small butterflies usually brown and orange in colour. They can be distinguished from other butterflies by several key features. Like all butterflies they have clubs on the ends of their antennae but in the case of Skippers the club is hooked, like a crochet needle (see photo above).

Unlike most other butterflies that hold their wings vertical when at rest, the skipper when at rest holds its back pair of wings horizontal and its front pair of wings at an angle to the vertical (pictured below). As a kid its stance reminded me of an F-111 (although the purists among you will tell me that the aircraft has its front wings horizontal and its tail ‘wings’ at an angle).

Skippers are key pollinators of flowering plants, therefore are good to have in your veggie patch. Their sensitivity to toxins and pesticides makes them important environmental indicators.

Unlike the adage about cooks and broth, lots of skippers are good.

A noisy visitor

February 9, 2020

We were surprised to hear the burbling call of a Noisy Friarbird at our place the other day. We then spotted a lone bird perched high in a dead tree, which didn’t make for great photography, especially as it only stayed for a very short time. The friarbird is an uncommon visitor to this district – we have only recorded it here eight times in the last twenty years, always from October to April since it is mostly migratory in the southern part of its range, heading north as far as central Queensland for winter.

The Noisy Friarbird’s bald black head (the origin of the “friar” tag – think of a monk’s tonsure) and the knob on its strong bill distinguish it from the other Victorian species, the Little Friarbird, and from the other large honeyeaters, the wattlebirds.

It feeds on nectar, insects and fruit and can gather in noisy squabbling groups among blossoms, often with other honeyeaters. Considering its gregarious nature it seems our lone bird must have been scouting out new territory, or had simply lost its way.

The call, recorded locally, can be heard by clicking on the audio icon below.