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A Sheoak mystery and a lifelong impression from the “How & Why Wonder Book of Insects”

We were very curious about what appeared to be some strange looking seed pods on a Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata) on our place at Strangways.

These don’t look like the usual seed cases on a Sheoak.

Closer inspection revealed something that certainly looked like some type of fruit, but not from a Sheoak.

The plot thickens.

We decided to explore this mystery in the most effective way we know for dealing with any botanical question. We asked Frances Cincotta of course. She said it’s an insect gall made by a scale bug called Cylindrococcus spiniferus and pointed us to a Wikipedia page on it. The wingless female of this species stimulates the Sheoak to grow the gall around her and it seems her eggs are fertilised by the male through the gall. There is a photo of the inside of the gall by John Tann at https://www.flickr.com/photos/31031835@N08/15965777418/ I decided not to pull apart a gall for a photo as I don’t want to unnecessarily kill the insect.

On a different tack, I was very pleased to get some photos of an adult Ant Lion (genus Myrmeleon) hanging onto an old grass flower stalk in our front yard the other night.

Adult Ant Lion
Ant Lion

Ant Lions are related to Lacewings and belong to the same order Neuroptera (neuro – veined, ptera – wing). As a child in the mid 1960s, I was handed down my brother’s copy of the “How and Why Wonder Book of Insects” and was fascinated to read about Ant Lions. The book explained the tiny cones sunk into the dust in the bush around our places as being made by Ant Lion larvae which use them to trap ants, which they then grab with their large pincers and devour. I would gently blow away the cone and see the tiny predator exposed. And as a curious and somewhat un-empathetic child, I’d encourage an ant to fall in and watch the Ant Lion flick the dust over the struggling ant so it would slide to the bottom of the pit. Then the Ant Lion would seize it and drag it under the dust.

Ant Lion trap, March 2019
Ant Lion larva Nov 2014

I have rarely seen adults, so I was very pleased that this specimen was not in a hurry to leave and would even hang around for some close ups.

Up close
An intimate portrait.

A canny hunter and climbing the Austrostipas

On a recent nocturnal excursion into our front yard, a slightly odd little tuft on a Drooping Sheoak needle caught my eye. It looked just like a little bit of debris, but on close inspection, I saw that it was one of the most curious looking little predators, a Lacewing larva.

Lacewing larva

These little hunters carry tiny pebbles and bits of decaying vegetation on their backs for camouflage. You can see the mighty pincers on this little one on the right hand side. Aphids and other small invertebrates beware!

Elsewhere in our yard I found an adult Lacewing – I don’t know if they’re the same species, but the two images give an impression of the incredible transformation this little one will undergo.

Adult Brown Lacewing

Spear Grasses (Austrostipa) are flowering at our place at the moment. Whilst I will find their sharp-pointed, spring-curled-tailed seeds annoying as they collect pin-like in my socks and trousers in a month or two, when they are flowering, they are so beautiful.

Spear Grasses flowering with Black-anther Flax-lilies

They also look very beautiful through the macro lens

Spear Grass flowering up close

I’ve seen a few small beetles on the flower stalks, mostly dark and only a few millimetres long. On one tussock, I found quite a number of slightly larger beetles, about 5 mm long.

Climbing a Spear Grass leaf

As they climbed and also descended, I got quite a good view of their undersides.

Back down again

This was the only Austrostipa tussock that I saw these beetles on and when they got to the top of a leaf, they seemed to get very confused about its ending, which made me think they really had intended to climb something different, perhaps something with a decent leaf to eat.

Getting to the top
The substrate seems to run out
And what now?

Heard but unseen … until now

I’ve been hearing Pallid Cuckoos regularly over recent weeks, but until yesterday they had eluded my eyes.

The last of of our regular migrant cuckoos to arrive this year, the Pallid Cuckoo is the largest and loudest. This one was observed along Yandoit Creek – it had just snared a caterpillar from a Hawthorn bush and was behaving furtively as it gobbled the morsel in a nearby pear tree.

Pallid Cuckoo, Yandoit Creek, 3rd October 2020
II
III
Brown Falcon over Yandoit Creek

Of baby feet, baby insects and snoozing flies

The beautiful caterpillar that I posted a few days back has been hanging around on our Flax-lily and as I looked at it I become fascinated by its legs. Well, its prolegs really. Here’s the photo I posted last time.

The caterpillar again.

Being insects, caterpillars have six true legs. These are the three pairs right up the front near the head. The back five pairs of “legs” are prolegs. I was able to gently turn the flower stalk to get a better look and at 5:1 macro.

Two pairs of prolegs from below.

When I was trying to learn a bit more about these, I came across a very interesting explanation on a great site called the Caterpillar Lab. In short, caterpillars don’t use their true legs a lot. But the do use their prolegs, which vary in number between species. Not having a rigid body or internal pressure sacs for muscles to pull against, they grasp whatever they’re on with their prolegs and then contract the muscles in their body to pull themselves forward, detaching and reattaching their prolegs as they go. The little hairy projections on the feet of their prolegs grip the surface a bit like velcro. The pads also have receptors in plantar hairs to taste whatever it is the caterpillar is on.

Caterpillars are, of course, the babies of moths and caterpillars – hence the first part of the title. Larvae are young that don’t look at all like the adult and will undergo a dramatic metamorphosis to become an adult. Beetles also have larvae that look utterly different to the adult form. At present, there are a lot of black silky caterpillar-like creatures crawling across the ground. These are Soldier Beetle nymphs, which will feed in the leaf litter.

Soldier Beetle larva

At the end of summer, this little one will look like this.

Tricolor Soldier beetles from late summer last year

Nymphs are young that look a bit like the adult form and gradually change through different sheddings of skin – each new stage being called an instar.

Looking closely at a Drooping Sheoak in our yard, I found quite a few tiny nymphs of flat bugs. I have no idea what type of bug these are, but it’s easy to see the different instars in one photo. I’m keeping an eye on them to see how they develop.

Flat bug nymphs on Drooping Sheoak. The needle of the Sheoak gives an impression of the tiny size of these young ones.

Also on the Sheoak were are few Psyllid bugs. Some of these were in the process of mating.

Psyllid bug.

I was very excited to find a large mite on a Grey Box in our bush. It looked very like a larger version of the Red Velvet Mites I’ve posted before, but not so velvety and not as vividly red. It turns out to be the delightfully named Rainbow Mite of the genus Rainbowia.

Rainbow Mite. “I like to eat Psyllids!”

They are indeed related to the Red Velvet Mite, but unlike its smaller cousin doesn’t feed in the leaf litter. It cruises around the eucalypts looking for Psyllid bugs to eat. They are arachnids and have eight legs, but unlike spiders have jaws to crunch up their prey. But why the name? Not so much for their vivid colour, it seems. According to the Queensland Museum web site, they are named for an arachnologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – WJ Rainbow. What a wonderful name for both the mite and the arachnologist!

Powerful mouth parts for munching on psyllids.

I do like to photograph flies, but during the day they tend to be a bit skittish. There have been a lot sleeping on different grasses and plants in our bush by night, so I’ve managed a few pleasing shots. There are still very large numbers of very small flies only 2-3 millimetres long. These must be incredibly important pollinators for our native plants and I’m seeing a lot around by day, visiting a wide range of flowers.

Does a tiny fly have dreams as it sleeps?

At the other end of the scale, the Golden Blowfly is an imposing subject at 2:1 macro. Not everyone’s idea of beauty perhaps, but certainly fascinating to look at and a crucial player in our bush.

Golden Blowfly

Timing, defenses refined by evolution

As spring unfolds, I’m seeing a lot of invertebrates around our place at Strangways that I’ve not seen since the end of autumn. Various species of wasp are around and most have been a bit camera shy, but one was happy to pose.

Brachonid wasp?

I think this little cutie is a Brachonid wasp, but I’m happy to be corrected. Other Brachonids are definitely waking up at the moment. The ovipositor on this one was just too long to include fully in the photo. Brachonids often use these to deposit their eggs into the bodies of Sawfly larvae that the wasp larvae will eat from inside. Over millenia of evolution, the timing of the emergence of the adult wasps has been perfected as I’m starting to find quite a few schools of Sawfly larvae munching on eucalypt leaves.

Sawfly larvae

These larvae have appeared on the same trees that I found adult Pergagrapta Sawflies last autumn, so I wonder if they are the same species.

Pergarapta Sawfly from last autumn

Caterpillars are increasing in diversity. There are still a lot of Chlenias moth caterpillars about, but not as many as a few weeks ago when I posted about them. They have been joined by some other interesting caterpillars.

What am I looking at?

As I was inspecting a Grey Box sucker looking for subjects, I couldn’t help but notice one leaf stalk that seemed to be pointing the wrong way. As I watched, things started to change.

Not quite a leaf stem
What a disguise!

I have no idea what species this little caterpillar was, but I am lost in admiration for the camouflage.

Another very successful strategy for a juicy caterpillar is to look spiky and unappetising. This one was on a Black-anther Flax Lily flower stalk.

How not to look tasty!

Lacewings are also starting to appear in greater numbers and variety.

Green Lacewing

I always like looking at Hoverflies, with their elegant shapes and steady hovering flight. Lots of them are now investigating the flowers in the yard and bush. This one was very sedate, resting on a Groundsel and so a good photo was pretty easy.

Hoverfly

ARACHNOPHOBE WARNING – A SPIDER FOLLOWS.

Wolf spiders are also emerging from their holes in the ground. At night, their beautiful emerald eyes shine in the glow of my headlight. These spiders tend to carry their babies on their backs, which I’ve never managed to get a photo of. They still make an impressive subject for a close-up, in-your-face portrait.

A lichen covered stone makes a great stage for an impressive Wolf Spider

The moths that ate Strangways – well not quite

Since the heavy rains of 2010-11, we’ve had quite a growth of Cassinia sifton at our place. In recent weeks, it has become favourite fodder for Looping Caterpillars of the moth genus Chlenias.

Chlenias caterpillar

Almost all of the Cassinia bushes at our place have at least a few of these munching away, ranging from 10-30 mm long. As there is a great abundance of the shrub in our bush, I’m very happy that someone is keeping it in check. There is some debate about whether Cassinia sifton is truly native to Victoria or whether it came from NSW during the early gold rushes. Until recently it was classed as one species with Cassinia arcuata which is now a rare species only found in the northwest of the state.

Up close
Chlenias caterpillars are also enjoying some Golden Wattle

I was trying to get some photos of a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus) at our place the other day and found two on the ridge, chasing each other in an amorous sort of way. They got themselves deep into a Cassinia bush where one (a male I assume) offered the other a series of Chlenias caterpillars. Due to the dense bush I was only able to get a pretty ordinary shot of her eating her gift. The male was hidden behind some of the branches, but I figure this one definitely belongs in this post.

Shining Bronze-Cuckoo with a gift of Chlenias

Also in great abundance in our bush at present are Fungus Gnats. As I prowl around the bush looking for subjects, I am struck by how important these tiny insects are for pollination and as fodder for other invertebrates. They are also very challenging to get good photos of.

Fungus Gnat sleeping on Golden Wattle flower bud
This one seemed to be drinking from the gland at the bend of the leaf stem of a Golden Wattle. Mostly I see ants doing this.

Nocturnal ants are also common and very important during winter nights and again Golden Wattles are favourite haunts.

Camponotus on a Golden Wattle

Harvestmen are arachnids that look like spiders, having eight legs, but unlike spiders they only have two eyes (spiders have eight) and have external mouth parts that crunch their prey rather than sucking the insides out as spiders do. I’ve seen harvestment from time to time, but this year I’ve seen a lot of Opoliones harvestmen, usually on wattle and eucalypt leaves.

Opoliones hunting at night on a Golden Wattle

Mantis character and some small beauties

Praying Mantises are delightful subjects for photography. They strike amazing poses with their impressive hunting legs. I found this impressive specimen in our back yard recently.

Praying Mantis

When I noticed the short wings, I wondered if the mantis was a nymph, but found that female mantises often have reduced wings, or none at all. This seems likely to me as at about 10 cm long, she seemed a bit large to be a nymph.

There is something very evocative and sweet about the way these insects look at the strange thing that is a camera (and even stranger human perhaps). I’m also reminded of the wonderful sculpture “Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch” on the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets.

An endearing pose

The very helpful brisbaneinsects.com says that there are three families of Praying Mantises in Australia. One family is only found in north Queensland. Of the other two, Family Mantidae have two rows of spines on their forelegs, whilst Family Amorphoscelidae, the Bark Mantids, have a single row. This one does seem to have two rows on the distal parts of her front legs.

Two rows of spines on the distal part of the front legs
A good view of the sensory palps

There have also been quite a few small wasps around, but few willing to pose, so I was pleased to find this small one (about 10mm long) resting on a Golden Wattle leaf. And a correction – what I thought was a Wasp Mimic Bee in a previous post turns out to be an actual wasp. The folded wings and indented eye apparently belong to wasps, not bees. Thanks to Kate Sandiford for the correct information.

Wasp

I know that most people are not fond of cockroaches, especially those of us who’ve lived with Sydney’s massive population of American Cockroaches. But some of our local native cockroaches are very sweet and, of course very important for recycling leaf litter. This little one had found its way into our house. I thought it worth a photo before I returned it to the bush. As I read up on Mantids, I discovered that they are most closely related to cockroaches and termites. Comparing this little cockroach to the Praying Mantis, I can see how that could be the case.

Cockroach

… and now for something completely different!

I suspect most folks will have, at some stage, encountered the organism pictured below.

It’s a slime mould.

These images are possibly the same species, which I suspect is Fuligo septica, a slime mould that goes by the unfortunate common name of Dog Vomit Slime Mould.

Slime moulds are remarkable organisms. They were once thought to belong to the fungi kingdom but are now classified in the kingdom Protista – they live their lives as single cells that mass together into large reproductive structures when food is in short supply. I found these two specimens about a week ago, the first on a layer of decomposing wood dust, the second on soil in a garden bed.

There is some terrific information on slime mould here at Fungi Map, while Wikipedia also provides a useful overview.

Slime mould #1, Newstead, 18th January 2020

Slime mould #2

Successful hunters

Golden-flumed Sugar Ants (Camponotus suffusus) are a very elegant larger ant. I was pleased to find a few of these graceful ladies on a Golden Wattle.

Golden-flumed Sugar Ant (Camponotus suffusus)

Golden-flumed Sugar Ant

I was then surprised to find one of them having been caught by a spider. When I looked at the screen on the back of the camera, I was even more surprised to see four tiny flies on the ant. There seem to be two species and some had quite distended abdomens. I wonder if they were sucking something from the fly or laying eggs into her.

Golden-flumed Sugar Ant, spider and flies

An unfortunate ant.

By night, there are a few Wolf Spiders around (family Lycosidae), easily found with my head torch by the beautiful emerald green light reflecting from their eyes. One particular individual seems very lucky. On one night, a hapless wasp was in the mandibles of this successful spider.

Wolf Spider with wasp

Wolf Spider with wasp

The next night, it was a leaf beetle’s turn to be converted to spider flesh. I was curious that this spider was on some grasses as they usually hunt on the ground.

Wolf Spider with beetle

Wolf Spider with beetle

Wolf Spider with beetle

Front view

Elsewhere, a small Huntsman was waiting patiently on a Grey Box leaf for some food to come along.

Huntsman?

Huntsman

Huntsman?

An impressive array of eyes!

Still plenty of ladybirds around too!

Ladybird

Ladybird on Shiny Everlasting flower at night.

Lots of flies sleeping on leaves at present too. I think this might be a Lauxaniid fly.

Lauxaniid fly?

Fly sleeping on Hardenbergia leaf.

 

 

The abundance of everlastings and hoverflies

When we first came to our place at Strangways 25 years ago, there was one Shiny Everlasting (Xerochrysum viscosum) on our block. We sowed some seeds from Sandon Forest into a fenced area many years ago and now our bush is full of these wonderful plants.

Shiny Everlasting

Shiny Everlasting

Shiny Everlastings

Spreading through the bush

These daisies not only bring colour to the bush, but support a remarkable number of invertebrates.

Beetle

A tiny beetle munches on an Everlasting

They are home not only to the vegetarians, but also to those that prey on others. I was delighted to find this little lacewing larva, with its magnificent disguise of plant debris fixed to its back as it strolled across a flower.

Lacewing larva

Lacewing larva

Having expressed concern about the low numbers of invertebrates in recent seasons, I am pleased to report an extraordinary boom in the numbers of hoverflies in our bush at present. I don’t recall having seen quite so many. There are thousands of them, feeding not only on the Shiny Everlastings, but also on Groundsels and Bluebells. There seem to be a number of species of them as well.

Hoverfly

Hoverfly

Hoverfly

Hoverfly #2

There are also lots of ladybirds visiting the Everlastings too, again in numbers that seem unusual as far as my memory goes.

Ladybird

Ladybird

There have also been quite a few small flies, about 3mm long with large eyes, dropping in for some pollen from the profusion of flowers.

Small fly on Everlasting - Tachinidae; Phasia sp.

Fly

And a bit of a mystery… I found one flower with a cluster of dead native bees (Lassioglossum perhaps?)with their heads stuck deep into the flower. On and adjacent flower, there were a couple more dead bees similarly situated. It’s as if they’ve been lured to the flower to meet their end. Did they come across the larvae of a wasp from eggs laid in the flower as I seemed to photograph a while back? Or is it an insect-eating fungus like the remarkable one recently reported on in The Age?

Dead bees on everlasting

A deadly feast

And apart from their support for many creatures, the Shiny Everlastings of course have a striking beauty all their own. Even as they start to set seed, a close look reveals remarkable beauty.

Shiny Everlasting seeds (Xerochrysum viscosum)

Everlasting seeds

Shiny Everlasting seeds (Xerochrysum viscosum)

And again.