Monday, July 22, 2013

Walkabout Treasures: Beauty in the Beast(s) - Part One

With no particular intention in mind, but with camera in hand, I did an hour's walkabout yesterday morning just to see what I could see.  Although I didn't feel like I'd found anything of particular interest while I was walking, when I came back in and downloaded the photos, I decided that a lot of a little had added up to something almost substantial.

What that something is, I have no clue.  Maybe you'll be able to tell me.

I started off noticing this tiny, but bright, shiny flea beetle on (the seasonal remains of) my Smoky Hills resinous skullcap, Scutellaria resinosa 'Smoky Hills'.  This beetle may look big in the photo, but it's probably less than 0.5" in real life.

While resinous skullcap plants are small, topping out at about 12" X 12", they are knock-your-socks-off gorgeous in the spring, covered with beautiful small purple flowers.  The kindest thing I can say about them right now is that they are tired...and still small, so that their flea-bitten foliage sort of fades away visually in the garden, at least when it isn't being magnified into ginormous proportions by a macro lens.

The shiny flea beetle feeds only on Scutellaria, so no one needs to worry about the state of my neighbors' bean plants.  I have only seen one adult and one larva before, and that was several years ago - the last time I had a few skullcaps in my flower beds.  Those two plants got accidentally destroyed when we had our front walkway put in, changing it from a mulched  path to a more permanent flagstone surface.  This time I only saw this one adult.  It amazes me, though, that the shiny flea beetles show up here when I plant skullcaps - I would have sworn that there wasn't a skullcap besides mine for miles around.

Not too far away, the grasshoppers are continuing to feast on my altheas.

I shot a couple sad pictures to document the damage they are doing, which includes stripping the bark from all the new growth this year, before my attention was captured by a much more interesting subject.  Easily visible on the remnants of my wild asparagus (thank you, again, to the grasshoppers for the visibility factor), it was a beautiful, bright green cicada that was kind enough to pose for a photo or two before flying away. 

Note that impressive, dark brown, straw-like mouthpart/beak held under its thorax, between its front legs!  It parallels the larger, light brown straw of the asparagus stem, angling down in front of the cicada.

Last night, in my marathon session on, I learned that this is a superb dog-day cicada.  Not an okay dog-day cicada, mind you, but a SUPERB dog-day cicada.  Tibicen superbus, in Latin speak, so that its superb quality has even been immortalized in its scientific name!  "Tibicen" apparently means "flute-player" or "piper" in Latin, a fact which makes me smile.

Speaking of my green flute player, one of the Bug Guide pages linked to this collection of cicada songs, which includes a recording of the song of the superb dog-day cicada.  I am intrigued by the fact that each species of cicada has a different song - I'd love to learn to identify which species is singing when I hear them!

The superb dog-day cicada is one of the group considered annual cicadas, due to the fact that members of the species emerge every summer.  Interestingly, though, it seems that most of these "annual cicadas" actually have life cycles that are several years long, with overlapping broods emerging each summer.  Individually, each egg hatches from the tree twig where it was laid and the tiny new nymph drops to the ground, living for up to 3 years underground, growing while drinking sap from various perennial and woody plant roots.  You'll be relieved to know that cicadas, despite their numbers, are not known to cause any particular damage to the plants they feed on.

When it is ready for its final transformation into adulthood, the cicada nymph emerges from the soil (generally at night) and climbs a tree or other plant stem, hangs on and breaks out of its nymphal shell.  The winged adult emerges.  You can find those empty cicada shells clinging to plants and even house surfaces all over the place right now.  For example, later on my walkabout I found this shell clinging to a grass stem about a foot above the ground. 

Since I paid attention and found at least 6 species of cicadas in our yard several summers ago, I have no idea which of the various cicada species this shell is from, but odds are it's not the shell of my green friend above.  If you look really closely in this frontal view, you can see the crack down the back where the exoskeleton split apart and the adult pulled itself out.

In the cicada world, it is the adult male that does most of the singing as he tries to attract a mate.  As I listen to them proclaim, I feel bad for the conundrum of their final few days:  the males must sing to attract a mate, but they are also being hunted by cicada killer wasps to become baby wasp food.  Even for "simple" animals, life isn't simple. 

Unlike some insects with long nymphal stages and relatively short adult lives, adult cicadas do feed, taking both sap and water during their brief time above ground.  Once they mate and the female lays her eggs, though, their time is done.  Before long, I'll be finding cicada bodies lying on the ground after these summer chorus singers complete their life cycle and simply wear out.

I'm going to pause here and continue sharing my walkabout discoveries in another post.  I figure that 3 discoveries in one post is plenty for now!



Melanie said...

I LOVE the sound of cicadas. .but I had no idea that we could find so many different varieties in our yards!! Thanks for the head's up!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Melanie, I'm looking forward to finding out which cicadas you find out your way!

Janet, The Queen of Seaford said...

Wish you lived closer!