Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Orange and Black Beetles

Okay, since it's Halloween, I thought I'd get into the "spirit" of things (yep, I know, awful pun....) and write about something orange and black--but it has nothing to do with pumpkins or black cats.  Instead, here are some photos of a delightful little orange and black beetle I found on some black-eyed Susan flowers in September:
I believe it's a type of soldier beetle--I'm pretty sure this one is a goldenrod soldier beetle, also called a "Pennsylvania leatherwing" (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus.)  They're about an inch long and on the day I photographed them, there were lots of them busily flitting about the flowers--I caught this photo as the beetle was taking off from a flower--notice the membranous underwings.  Adult beetles eat pollen and drink nectar from flowers.  If you look closely, you can see some bright yellow pollen its face::
In this profile, you can see its black and yellow abdomen.  Though superficially these beetles resemble fireflies, they don't have any light-producing organs in their abdomen:
I'm a big fan of beetles--they've fascinated me since I was a kid.  I'll try to feature more beetles in later blogs.  But, that's all for now.  More "off the beaten path in two weeks."  Until then, Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fall Fruits & Seeds

I must admit that Autumn is my favorite season!  After the blistering summer heat and before the cold of winter, I delight in the cooler fall temperatures.  I also enjoy the riot of color that explodes in plants--their leaves, fruit and seeds.  Below are photos that I took in mid-September but didn't get a chance to post until now.

Several people have commented to me that the pearl-like berry clusters of the American Beautyberry plant (also called American mulberry) are amongst their favorite fall colors.  Spaced at intervals along the stems, these vivid purple berries are a food source to a variety of wildlife--birds and squirrels (not too good for people, though!)
Volunteer Larry Lewis pointed out this gorgeous strawberry bush plant, a native perennial shrub we have planted outside the Goodson House on our Museum grounds. (Thanks, Larry!)  In September and October, the spiky strawberry-colored seed capsule will burst open revealing bright reddish-orange seeds:
In the fall, persimmon trees are loaded with fruit which are extremely (and I mean extremely!) bitter until they fully ripen usually after the first frost.  At which point, a tree might be stripped clean almost overnight by opossums--who dearly love this tantalizing fruit!:
Do you know what fruit is pictured in this next photo?  Don't let the leaves fool you--they're from another plant (columbine)!  Hint:  it grows from a type of vine:
Did you guess passion vine fruit?  There are many species of passion vine--I believe this one is Passiflora incarnata, a hardy species native to the southeastern United States.  The plant's leaves are food for Gulf fritillary caterpillars. The fruit is edible and was consumed by early American colonists as well as Native Americans.  In the photo below you see its lovely purple flower--being pollinated by a bumblebee:
And finally, in our Virginia Garden, the fall harvest included corn, cucumbers, and figs--many thanks to our hard-working Horticulture staff and Volunteers!:
More "off the beaten path" in two weeks!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Monarch Butterfly Emerging From Chrysalis

This time of year, in late September and early October, monarch butterflies that hatch out now are the ones that will migrate to Mexico.  Educator Judy Molnar has been doing monarch tagging demonstrations here at the Virginia Living Museum for several years.  She keeps monarch chrysalids in a screened enclosure until they emerge.  After a monarch's wings pump up and dry out, she places a small Monarch Watch tag on its wing before releasing it.  On an "as available" basis, Museum guests can observe the tagging process --a totally enchanting experience!  Sometimes, if you're really lucky you might be able to see a monarch emerge from its chrysalis.  I took this short video clip of a monarch emerging on September 28, 2012:

In case you're curious, I waited about two and a half hours for the butterfly to begin to emerge--but the actual emergence itself only took about 3 minutes.  We've seen other monarchs emerge in less than 2 minutes!  Anyway, we knew it was going to come out some time during that day because the chrysalis had started to turn from green to clear the day before--clear enough to see the black and orange wings inside.  Look closely--can you see that the dark chrysalis is starting to split open at the bottom?:
Here's a few photos that show some details of the newly emerged butterfly.  Its proboscis, or tongue, which at first is in two halves must be "zipped" together for it to work properly:
Can you see the tiny scales that cover its wing? (you may have to click on the photo for a larger view):
When a butterfly first emerges, notice how large its abdomen is--it's filled with fluid which it'll use to help pump up its wings, which at first look all crumpled.  If you've ever watched a freshly emerged butterfly, you might notice that it drips a reddish fluid--don't worry, it's not blood!  It's excess fluid and waste that has been stored up while it was inside the chrysalis--it dumps the fluid after pumping up its wings:
Many thank-you's to all who helped with the filming of this video:  to Judy for all her hard work in rearing the monarchs (and for rigging an impromptu lighting set-up!), to Kelly Herbst for editing the video (it was originally a five minute video with audio of excited staff yelling down the hall: "Quick! Come look at this!" "Wow--that's sooo cool!"--we figured you'd enjoy the music better), to Jim Drummond for fixing the microscope lighting apparatus which had broken the day before, to Chris Lewis for letting us run many extension chords through her office, to John Wright for lending me a tiny camera tripod that would fit inside the screened cage, to fellow educator Bo Baker and VLM Volunteer, Harry Wroblewski, who also contributed alternative light sources (only in a place like this can one yell "I need lights!" and in two minutes have people hand you microscope lighting apparatus, cave helmet lights, and a security maglite!)  Finally, I'd like to dedicate this blog to a couple of guests from Pennsylvania, Tere and Matt, who sat patiently for about half an hour waiting for the butterfly to emerge.  Sad to say, they missed seeing the butterfly come out--but they were able to see the video off my camera before they left for the day.  That's all for now....more "off the beaten path" in two weeks!