Golden Afternoon

Top Photo: Common buckeye on goldenrod.

Positioning oneself next to a stand of goldenrod on a sunny fall afternoon is a wise choice for a naturalist interested in getting a quick inventory of the local flying insects. The insects are attracted to the yellow flowers for their nectar and accessibility.

There are no long tubular flowers requiring a lengthy proboscis to reach the sweet liquid. No hovering necessary either, the flowers are right there on top of the plant. Small flowers, yes, but many to choose from and they come with a comfortable platform on which to sit and sip.

Common buckeyes are one of the most common and widespread butterflies in North Carolina. They’re often seen low to the ground along roadsides and other open habitat, including lawns and gardens. Look for the black, orange and white spined caterpillars on purple gerardia.

Common buckeye from above.

Fiery skippers are common in our area. Look for them in open places, especially fields and gardens with plenty of small, low level flowers. Though, a large shruby lantana can be busy with nectaring fiery skippers.

Fiery skipper.

Bees, wasps, and butterflies come for the nectar and you may even see a beetle or two.

Common thread-wasted wasps dig burrows in loose soil for nesting purposes, stocking the individual nesting chambers with anesthetized larvae of either sawflies or lepidopterans (caterpillars of butterflies and moths). The future wasp larvae will feed on the paralyzed prey. The adults feed on nectar.

Common thread-wasted wasp (Ammophila procera) taking in energy.

The beetles, locust borers, are here for the goldenrod’s pollen, they eat it.

Locust borer on goldenrod.

Locust borers are long-horned beetles. Females lay eggs under the bark or in crevices in the bark of black locust trees. The hatching larvae bore into the inner bark and hollow out a small chamber in which to spend the winter. The following spring the grubs feed on the inner bark as they tunnel through it. The grubs then pupate in the tunnel and emerge by late summer to early fall, it’s then you’re most likely to see the adult beetles on goldenrod.

Hearts-a-bursting (Euonymus americanus) is popping open throughout the campus. Otherwise known as strawberry bush, the foliage and twigs of the plant are eaten by deer (not surprising), and the seeds by some songbirds, turkeys, and small mammals.

Bursting hearts (Euonymus americanus).

A little further up the path, a group of eastern-tailed blues were fluttering alongside the walkway. They’re tiny butterflies. They’re not as easy to photograph as one might think given their slow and steady low altitude flight and frequent perches. It’s tough getting in close on the little blues.

Their host plants, the plants the females lay eggs on, are pea family members. The adults nectar on a variety of small flowered plant species which, as you might guess, grow close to the ground.

Eastern tailed-blue.

Green lacewings are known to have predatory young which feed on aphids and other small insects and their larvae. As camouflage, the lacewing nymphs often cover themselves with debris, lichen, plant material, or the dry carcasses of their prey. You’re likely to see one covered with the fuzzy white, waxy substance of the woolly aphids they prey upon. It’s not often you see them naked.

Naked green lacewing nymph on signage on Dinosaur Trail (note pincers).
A more typical lacewing nymph, or lichen bug, covered with lichen.
Close-up of fierce pincers of lichen bug.

The waxy material worn by the lacewing nymphs is produced by the aphids after each molt perhaps as a kind of protection from either the elements or predators. The predator protection apparently isn’t a guarantee in regards to lacewing nymphs. Aphids are a major prey item for the nymphs, or lichen bugs, as they’re sometimes called.

Lichen bug covered in aphid material (head is towards fingers). Insect is probing finger with pincers. Different species than above.

And finally, in keeping with the color scheme, I came across a handful of Cape May warblers on the north side of the wetlands. They were gleaning and flycatching insects on and around mimosa, elm, a birch, and maples. The heaviest activity was centered on a mimosa which typically attracts psyllids and mimosa webworms, though I couldn’t quite make out exactly what the birds were gleaning and flycatching.

Cape May warbler foraging on mimosa tree.

I tend to see Cape Mays around the second week in October. The trees on the north side of the wetlands seem especially susceptible to insect infestations. Insects is what the warblers fatten up on before and during migration. Occasionally, migrants stay in the area for a day or two, sometimes five or more days, depending on their dietary needs and the weather.

Migratory birds such as wood warblers have the ability to store up fat in their tissues, later using the fat to power their muscles during periods of extended flight during their journeys, such as a non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Whether or not our little group of Cape May warblers sticks around and adds to their fat deposits depends on the weather and insect availability. Since the warblers migrate at night, an overcast sky with southerly winds and or rain will likely keep the birds here. A clear night with light winds, preferably out of the north, will prompt them to depart. We’ll have to wait and see.

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