Thursday, September 1, 2016


A Robber Fly

"Bugging."  According to my dictionary, 'bugging' should mean I'm annoying someone, or perhaps I'm recording someone surreptitiously.  I'm using this word more and more, but not in the normal way.  Instead of asking Dale, "Am I bugging you?" I am often saying "Are we going bugging?" It's like "Are we going fishing?", only I'm asking whether we going to go look for insects.  Obviously saying, "Are we going insecting?" doesn't work. 

We've been doing a lot of bugging since digital photography came along.  The camera gives us an up-close and personal look at their world. Over and over I'm amazed at what I see through my camera lens .... and, more importantly, what those little critters are up to. 

Today we started the day by getting so close to a robber fly that we could photograph the individual eyes in its compound eyes.  Those eyes look dark and mysterious to me. 

When we go bugging, we aren't intentionally heading out to door to be citizen scientists.  We're going bugging because we are enjoying their discovering their world.  Bugs are fascinating!  It happens that in the process we often are 'citizen scientists' -- see my last blog post for more on that subject. 

July 11, 2016:  Douglas County, Oregon
Today my big discovery involves two species, predator and prey.  Dale and I are bugging with friends at a little pond about 20 miles west of here, Iverson Pond.  The day started cool and cloudy, but we trusted the weatherman's promise of a sunny afternoon.  Sure enough.  By early afternoon the temperatures are above 70 and the sun is out most of the time.  Insects are out and about. 
First treasure is watching a Klamathweed beetle preparing for takeoff.  Technically beetles have two sets of wings:  the first pair, the elytra, is the hard pair that forms the covering on the beetle’s back and protects the second pair, the pair used for flying.  Beetle flight wings are neatly folded under the elytra until the beetle wants to fly. 
Suddenly I realized a little beetle is raising those eletra, revealing bright red wings, rather like the old nanny's petticoat in "Gone with the Wind" --  shockingly red.   
And then we watch the amazing process of thin, delicate wings unfolding.  But the beetle didn’t fly.  It neatly folded those bright red petticoats out of sight again. 

I'm always looking for new habitat.  That's the best way for finding new insects.  I've worked the edge of the pond more than once, but I've never scrambled all the way down the steep slope formed by the pond's dam.  The slope is lush with long grasses, hundreds of daisies and some digitalis.  The toe of the slope is bordered by a thick tangle of willow.  I wonder what I will find along that edge of willow. 

I’m not disappointed.  Near the willows I quickly spot gaudy black and orange caterpillars -- some are quite big.  Smaller ones, about half an inch long, cluster together.  Pretty, but they are demolishing their host plant.  Then I realized the host is tansy ragwort, an invasive weed that can kill cows and horses if they eat too much of it.  By the 1950s the weed had become a serious problem in Oregon pastures.  In the 60s and 70s three insects were introduced to help control it.  The results were remarkable, but flare-ups still occur.  I wonder whether these caterpillars cinnabar moth caterpillars?
I immediately set about photographing caterpillars.  There are fewer than a dozen tansy ragwort plants, so I look at each one carefully.  There, tucked under the leaf of one, I find a snakefly!  Snakeflies aren't really flies .... so confusing .... they belong to a different order, Raphidiidae.    Snakeflies are odd looking insects about 1.5 inches long.  Their striking wings are held vertically over their back and their long neck easily sets them apart from most insects. 

The snakefly I just found is feasting.  It has discovered a cluster of eggs and itty, bitty caterpillars that are just hatching out.  The caterpillars are translucent at this stage -- no color, but they have the shape and little hairs that assure me they are probably the first stage of the orange and black caterpillars I have just been photographing. 
Dale calls out, trying to find me. I am sitting on the ground, hidden amongst the tall grasses and daisies. Dear, sweet, man, he manages to join me just in time to photograph the bright black and red moth that comes flying by -- a cinnabar moth.  So now we have eggs, tiny caterpillars, bigger caterpillars and an adult cinnabar moth.  They are probably all the same species.  I also have a series of photographs of the snakefly feasting on those eggs and caterpillars. 

Now that's a good day of bugging!


  1. Good day indeed! Keep bugging us with your adventures and talents. How often would you ever see so many stages of a single moth species in one day? Plus the predator!

  2. Great detective work, I've not known of the snake fly.