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Rain Beetles: How to Identify a New Insect


Rain beetle: Although she looks dead, she really wasn’t. She kept flipping over on her back and wiggling and stretching her legs. Today was a first. I actually looked closely at a very ugly beetle. Yes, I am becoming an insect gal. I know this for sure because my daughter and her friend Shyloh brought me home a very large, very alive beetle creature. I had asked all my family to bring home any interesting insects they find and had even given them each a ziploc sandwich bag to bring them home in. Yesterday was the first time someone brought me an insect treasure. They said they couldn’t bear to put it into a baggie so they used a small plastic container from my daughter’s lunch box. She said there were hundreds of the beetles so she felt like she could bring one to us to study
.
This photo shows her shiny covering and the hair on her underside.

At first I was disgusted by this creature but after taking her out of the container and looking carefully, I once again found the beauty in the design of the Creator. Now all that was left to do was to discover what sort of beetle this insect was.
Sequence:
1. I pulled out my field guide but could not see any beetles that looked like this one.

2.So it was off to the internet and we started by looking up “beetle, california” on Google. I am finding that if I Google something and then look at the images it takes me far less time to identify a creature.

3.Once you find an image that looks like your insect, click on the link associated with that image. The majority of the time this is enough to get you pointed in the right direction.

Here’s what I learned about this little female insect: Rain beetle or P. puncticollis (more on classification at BugGuide.net) and can be found in California woodlands. The male is approximately 1″ and the female can be slightly larger at 1 3/4″. The males have wings but the females do not. They range in color from reddish-brown to black. The underside is covered in hairy bristles.

The interesting thing about this beetle is that it makes a sudden appearance after a soaking rain….hence the name Rain beetle. We had a really good rain all the night before so I think this is probably why we were able to see this amazing creature.The life cycle of the Rain beetle is very long. The larvae, who feed on roots of live trees and bushes of oaks and conifers, take up to as much as 10-12 years to mature but once they become adults the males wait for the first rains to bring them out for their mating flight and the females dig a tunnel to the surface to wait for the males to find them. Here is the fascinating part:The conditions that trigger the males and females to emerge are so stringent that this may only happen in a population for a single day in a given year. This made the finding of this insect all the more precious since it is a rare event.

This is the head of the beetle and if you look closely you can see her little “horns”. The males fly slowly over the area, low to the ground, looking for the females who although rarely leave their underground burrow, wait at the burrow’s entrance for the arrival of the males. She puts off a pheromone that attracts the males. After mating the female closes off the entrance to her burrow and lays her eggs. These mature the following spring.


I love this photo that shows her leg parts.

Wow, so much to learn. I have a new appreciation for the study of insects after learning that this was not just an ugly bug. It has a whole life story to learn and now I can share it with others.

Final thought from the Handbook of Nature Study, page 6:
“When it is properly taught, the child is unconscious of mental effort or that he is suffering the act of teaching.”

I did all this research and it hardly felt like any effort at all. I will be striving to make our nature study so that it is interesting and feels not like work but like refreshment.
 

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Oak Galls: California Gall Wasps

“A green little world
With me at its heart!
A house grown by magic,
Of a green stem, a part.

My walls give me food
And protect me from foes,
I eat at my leisure,
In safety repose.

My house hath no window,
‘Tis dark as the night!
But I make me a door
And batten it tight.

And when my wings grow
I throw wide my door;
And to my green castle
I return nevermore.”

The above poem about galls is shared on page 338 of theHandbook of Nature Study.
We found this interesting object on our nature walk a few weeks ago. I knew it was called a gall but I wasn’t sure at all where it came from or what it was for. After doing some research intheHandbook of Nature Study, I now know a lot about these interesting little houses.

Here’s what it says on page 335:“There are many forms of these gall dwellings, and they may grow upon the root, branch, leaf, blossom, or fruit. The miraculous thing about them is that each kind of insect builds its magical house on a certain part of a certain species of tree or plant; and the house is always of a certain definite form on the outside and of a certain particular pattern within. Many widely differing species of insects are gall makers; and he who is skilled in gall lore knows, when he looks at the outside of the house, knows just what insect dwells within it.”

So now I know it is a home for an insect. I have grown up around these objects but have never taken the time to really get to know them. Here is some more on how they are formed.

From page 335-336“A little, four-winged, fly-like creature, a wasp, lays its eggs, early in the season, on the leaf of the scarlet oak. As soon as the larva hatches, it begins to eat into the substance of one of the leaf veins. As it eats, it discharges through its mouth into the tissues of the leaf a substance which is secreted from glands within its body. Immediately the building of the house commences; out around the little creature grow radiating vegetable fibers, showing by their position plainly that the grub is the center of all of this new growth; meanwhile, a smooth, thin covering completely encloses the globular house; larger and larger grows the house until we have what we are accustomed to call an oak apple, so large is it.”


Gall Study - Handbook of Nature Study

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Where There is a Web: Fall Webworm

Yesterday we went looking for more insects in our backyard. We saw some more daddy longlegs…actually lots of daddy longlegs. We saw a tiny little spider on the marigolds but he would not hold still for a photo. I took this pretty photo of my marigold anyway. Look closely and you can see the pollen.

 
Then we found this wonderful web on the crepe myrtle bush. I looked high and low but did not see what made the web. After doing some research, I discovered this to be the web of a Fall Webworm or
Hyphantria cunea. In the larval stage, they create these great webs where they feed entirely inside the web. The adult is a moth that has white wings and has grayish-brown spotting on the forewings.

 



From page 295 of the Handbook of Nature Study:
“While the young pupils should not be drilled in insect anatomy as if they were embryo zoologists, yet it is necessary for the teacher who would teach intelligently to know something of the life stories, habits, and structure of the common insects.”

I am finding this to be essential to our study of insects. I need to know a little information about each thing we find and weave it into our study. It doesn’t take much time to open the Handbook of Nature Study, skim the table of contents, and turn to the page for more information. I am finding that just having read the introductory pages to the section on insects has provided more than enough information to get started.

From page 295:
“From the eggs, larvae (singular larva) issue. These larvae may be caterpillars, or the creatures commonly called worms, or perhaps maggots or grubs. The larval stage is devoted to feeding and to growth.”

Now I have a little vocabulary to use with the boys when we see caterpillars. I can point out that these are insects in their larval stage and their main objective in life is to eat. We can find this stage annoying when they are eating the leaves of our garden plants but we can understand a little more about it.

We observed a bee dancing in the pollen of a cosmos flower. He was digging into the pollen and practically rolling in it. Here is a slightly blurry photo of him…try to get a bee to sit still. You can see the pollen on his body.

My favorite photo of the day is this one. It is a close-up of my son’s dahlia flower. There had been a little insect on it that I was trying to capture but he was too quick.


Well, that is what we saw and observed yesterday. I am finding the more we look, the more we realize that we have to see.

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Introduction to Insects


We are covering the introductory pages for insects this week. Let’s just say right now that I am *not* normally an insect sort of person. This is a new world for me as we embark on our study of insects.

From page 294:

“Insects are among the most interesting and available of all living creatures for nature study. The lives of many of them afford more interesting stories than are found in fairy lore; many of them show exquisite colors; and, most important of all, they are small and are, therefore, easily confined for observation.”

I am finding this to be the case in our everyday life…there are insects everywhere. The caterpillar above we found on our hike yesterday. The more we looked, the more we found. We think it is a wooly bear caterpillar which will transform into an Isabella Tiger Moth,Pyrrharctia isabella. We found this really cute website that talks about “How to Catch A Bear”. Next time we will be collecting one of the caterpillars and bringing it home to watch.

Edit: Since writing the above, I have found that I incorrectly identified the caterpillar in the photo above. It is a yellow woolly bear and is the larva of the Spotted Tussock Moth or Lophocampa maculata.
This photo is from a few years ago and it shows a little better what this little guy looks like. No wonder he is called “woolly”, he really is!

Here’s a photo from our travels yesterday…..the aspen trees are just starting to turn a golden yellow. We are hoping to drive this way again in a few weeks and see the reds and oranges of the trees too.

Moth-and-Firefly-Nature-Study-@handbookofnaturestudy

 

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Our Square in the Woods: The Tree (Fall Tree Study)

square 9 28 07
Our square in the woods hasn’t changed much since last month. We did find some green acorns on the ground and there were quite a few more crunchy leaves on the ground.This trip we focused on trying to find some insects on our tree but we couldn’t find any at all. We did enjoy the variety of moss and lichen on the tree trunk.
tree bark with lichen and web
Do you see the different kinds of lichen in the photo? Do you see the spider web?We also enjoyed drawing the tree on our notebook sheet that will include drawings of the tree in all four seasons.
Here are a couple notebook pages you can use for your study:

 

drawing our tree
PB250006
This system seems to work for us. We attach an empty ziploc bag to our clipboard and then use it to hold our little “treasures” that we find along the way. Until we devised this system, I always had my pockets filled with items the boys wanted to bring home. Now they can easily slip them into the baggie and hold it themselves.

We used our books to identify the tree as an interior live oak. We collected some leaves and acorns and then took a walk down the hill to see what we could find.

As we walked, we heard some sort of hawk above us screeching loudly. I could tell he was circling around us by the way the sound was carrying over the hill. Here are a few things we saw as we hiked back down the hill to the car.
fungus we think
Some sort of fungus.
buckeye leaves 2
Leaves from a California Buckeye tree
pinecone
A beautiful sappy pine cone.

We had a great morning in the woods and will look forward to checking our square again next month.


That afternoon we ended our day with a bike ride with a friend on a local bike trail. The skies were grey but the boys had enjoyed their day outside.
PB230003



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Fiery Skipper



I am going to share something with you about these photos. I was walking to my mailbox the other morning to put a letter in to my sweet aunt. I went right past my newly planted butterfly bush and saw to my delight that there were about six butterflies skittering around the blooms. I was so surprised that within a matter of days, my new bush had attracted such a flock of butterflies.

I immediately ran inside to get my camera, hoping that they would still be there when I got back. As I approached the bush, they flew away to the lavender that is planted in the same row. I sat down quietly almost in the flowerbed, hoping that they would come back and they did. I must have taken twenty photos of the butterflies because I wasn’t sure any would come out clearly. I sat and observed these beautiful insects as they flitted from bloom to bloom and noticed so many details about them. I am finding it is easier to remember what I see if I actually say it out loud. Hairy body, small wings, orange and black, dots underneath, long legs….anyone walking by would have thought I was a little nuts. But, it did make it easier when I came inside and pulled out the field guide. I confirmed what I suspected it was by doing a search online and looking at images.

Results:
Hylephila phyleus
Fiery Skipper

The zoomed in photo of his head makes me laugh every time I see it. He looks as if he is wearing sunglasses. Can you believe the shape and size of his proboscis? Amazing creature and I will never forget the morning sitting in my lavender, waiting for the butterflies to come back so I could see them.

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American Hover Fly


This insect was hovering over the sweet alyssum in the pot on my back deck. I just happened to catch him hovering and eating the nectar. I have been fascinated with his hovering and had always suspected he was some sort of bee. After doing some research online, I discovered in fact that he is an American Hover Fly or Metasyrphus americanus. Adults eat nectar but the larva preys on other insects such as aphids.

On page 10 in
The Handbook to Nature Study, under the heading of “The Uses of Scientific Names”, it says, “Disquieting problems relative to scientific nomenclature always confront the teacher of nature-study. My own practice has been to use the popular names of species, except in cases where confusion might ensue, and to use the scientific names for anatomical parts. However, this matter is of little importance if the teacher bears in mind that the purpose of nature-study is to know the subject under observation and to learn the name incidentally.”

So we now have a new purpose to our nature study: To know the subject under observation and not necessarily to name it. I am assuming the author means to not necessarily know its scientific name. I am no longer satisfied to just observe, I want to identify what I am looking at. Nature study has aroused in me a great curiosity to know more deeply the creation around me. Now I have a new friend, the American Hover Fly.

 

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Daddy Longlegs (Harvestman):Not an Insect

I know this is a crazy photo of this daddy longlegs but he wasn’t going to cooperate with me at all. He had been sitting near his web waiting but when he saw me move closer, he went like lightning down to the bottom of the deck railing to a safe place. I zoomed in as much as possible and got this shot of him hanging out.
So here is what I learned from page 295 from the Handbook of Nature Study. “The word insect is often applied incorrectly to any minute animal; but the term should be restricted to those forms possessiong six legs and belonging to the class, Hexapoda. The name Hexapoda is from two Greek words: hex, six; and pous, foot. It refers to the fact that the members of this order differ from other arthropods in the possession of only six feet. Thus spiders, which have eight legs, are not insects.” So even though we are focusing on insects for the fall term, we still enjoyed seeing this creature that is really an arachnid.

What is a spider? Spiders are arachnids not insects, but both spiders and insects belong to the largest group of animals on Earth, the arthropods – animals with hard external skeletons and jointed limbs (greek arthro = joint, podos = footed). So there you have it the difference between insects and spiders. 🙂

Edit: Here are some more links to learn about daddy long legs.

Daddy Long legs or vibrating spiders
Daddy Long legs Myths

And I found an article that even says that daddy long legs are not even spiders. Here is an exerpt:”Although they resemble spiders, daddy long-legs, more correctly called harvestmen, are neither spiders nor insects. Taxonomically, they are arthropods, in the same class as spiders, Arachnida, but in a different order, Phalangida. Anatomically daddy long-legs differ from spiders because their three body segments — head, thorax and abdomen, are joined as one compact body segment. Spiders have two body segments — the head and thorax are joined as the cephalothorax, and the abdomen is the second body segment. Insects, which are taxonomically in the class Insecta, have three distinct body segments.” Found at Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

So now I can’t even say that the daddy longlegs is even a spider! It is technically an arthropod, an Arachnida, and in the order of Phalangida. Whew! This is getting hard to keep track of but I am learning a lot.

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Red Aphids



Now that we are focusing on insects, it seems we find them everywhere we look. This morning we were out on the deck looking at the flowers and look what we found right under our noses!

These little red guys are just crawling all over the chrysanthemums.

These red aphids I believe are Goldenglow aphids.
Dactynotus rudbeckiaeHere is what Anna Botsford Comstock says on page 295 about insects, “The abundance of insects makes it easy to study them. They can be found where-ever man can live, and at all seasons. This abundance is even greater than is commonly supposed. The number of individuals in a single species is beyond computation; who can count the aphids or the scale-insects in a single orchard, or the bees in a single meadow?”

Indeed, after taking a look at these aphids on my chrysanthemum, I can only agree. We are just scratching the surface in really “seeing” all the insects around us everyday.

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Nature Study: Starting a Year-Long Tree Study (Late Summer)

Last Friday we spent some time over at my parents’ house down the road from our place. They have a great pond and we took the opportunity to do our nature study time there this week. As the days get shorter and the leaves begin to turn colors, I feel the need to fit in some time outdoors before the season slips away.

So we made ourselves a little “jilly jar” pond scooper (Amateur Naturalist page 146) and we dipped in to find lots of interesting things to examine. We found three little fish, a pond snail, a whirlygig beetle, and another unknown insect. My son caught a Pacific Tree frog in a jar and we took some time to look at him and enjoy his sweet little face.

  Jilly Jar pond study

Here are some of our nature journal entries for the day. We used our field guides to identify the critters we found and we even used our pond guide to identify the duckweed floating on top of the pond. We each picked a tree to identify and realized that our tree identification book wasn’t as thorough as we would like so we made a note to pick up a new one the next time we were at the book store.

Oak nature journal
My son picked an oak to sketch and he also made a leaf rubbing.

Pacific Tree Frogpond fish
Here are some more journal entries for the frog and the fish.

nature journal pond entry
The boys also did some exploring in the woods and found a great spot to stake out a place to come back and observe each month. They chose a place that has a tree and some stacked wood because they thought it might include a place that a critter may live. We shall have to see and we will share our results.

square study woods
If you look carefully you can see the purple yarn and tent stakes that we used to mark our square in the woods.

So that was some of our nature day from last week. I will list some of the books we used to get our ideas for the activities for the day so you can check your library for similar books. I absolutely adore the “One Small Square” series and this is the first time we used it for the pond study. I highly recommend this series to get you started with nature study.

Outdoor Hour Challenge Autumn Nature Study Ideas Index @handbookofnaturestudy

You can click the graphic above to see all of the autumn related nature study challenges here on the Handbook of Nature Study. Make sure to pin this challenge and the Autumn Index!