Saturday, 23 April 2016

He's Back-Mr Cassowary Returns

After a period of about 2 months, we had a visit from the local resident male cassowary. His chick had been run over by a vehicle on Black Mountain Road over the Easter Weekend.

There are so many trucks and other vehicles using Black Mountain Road, that we are always worried he will be hit when he crosses the road to get to Top of the Range.

Caterpillar Parade

The other day while walking up our driveway, I came across a group of Processionary Caterpillars.
From a distance, the caterpillars look like a moving snake.

 They are not attached to one another but apparently follow a pheromone trail laid down by the leader. Above shows the lead caterpillar. How the "leader" is determined is a good question. Occasionally something goes wrong and the caterpillars form a circle and the hopeless caterpillars circle about for hours until something causes them to diverge.

 The larger caterpillars are probably the females. A total of 53 caterpillars comprised this procession.

So what is happening here. The caterpillars live on acacia an other trees in large groups within clumps of webbing. When the caterpillars are mature, they leave the host tree and follow-the-leader to an area of soft, pliant soil where they bury themselves and form cocoons. After a period of time, the adult moths will emerge.
The adult, a moth Ochrogaster lunifer, family Notodontidae, subfamily Thaumetopoeinae. At this writing, the moths are not uncommon around lights after dark.

The fine hairs on the caterpillars are to be avoided. They are urticating can cause serious skin irritation and if there are accumulations of webbing, cast skins at the base of the host trees, these can provoke allergies in humans.

Dogs can come to grief by physically encountering the caterpillars. Should they step on the line or sniff the caterpillars, the hairs can become embedded in their paws or tongue when they lick the source of irritation. If the hairs remain embedded, and they often do, they can cause infection which in extreme cases can result in the tongue becoming necrotic and leading to amputation.

Caterpillar with a Problem

On 11 April 2016 while doing some night photography in the bush on Clohesy Road, nr Koah, Queensland, we discovered a caterpillar with a problem.
This caterpillar, probably a lymantriid, Euproctis, perhaps lutea, had been parasitised by a small wasp early in its life history. The white pods are cocoons of the wasp, not eggs. The eggs had been laid internally by the wasp a couple of weeks before and the larvae developed within the caterpillar feeding on substances in the body fluids of the host.
 The unhatched cocoons with caps intact.
 Three days after collection of the caterpillar, the wasps emerged leaving the empty cocoons.  The parasites are wasps of the family Braconidae, probably in the genus Apanteles. The caterpillar remained active, moving around until 22 April, 2016 when it died. It had been doomed and would never have been able to form a cocoon and become an adult moth. This is an example of natural biological control

The caps indicate the hatching of the cocoons. There were 13 female  and 4 male Apanteles wasps.
The wasps. The female is in top. Note the short ovipositor that is used to insert eggs into the host caterpillar.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

"Trump" Tower

Well we have all heard of Trump Tower. How about Cocks' Tower?
My friend Graeme Cocks drilled some holes in a block of wood and hung it outdoors to see what he could attract. Wasp and Bee "hotels" are not new. Naturalists have been doing this sort of thing for years. Books have been written on the subject. It is interesting and fun to see what shows up.

Before the uninitiated wonder why anyone would want to "attract" wasps and bees, it should be noted that these insects are "solitary". This is opposed to "social". Solitary bees and wasps are just that. They do not make communal nests with hundreds or thousands of individuals. The social bees, honey bees, for example, produce nests that should be kept well away from habitations etc.

Anyone can make a wasp or bee hotel. All you need is a drill. The one above measures about .5m in length and is about 65 mm deep. holes of different sizes will attract wasps and bees of different sizes.

All you have to do is hang one out and wait. Eventually someone will find it and begin to use it. If there is no interest on the part of the wasp and bee community, then move it to another location. These insects seem to like a bit of sunlight. Bee hotels kept in the shade seem to be ignored.

What can you attract? Well there is a great variety of these insects, perhaps more than you think. And with them come the wasp and bee parasites. But you have to keep on the lookout. That's why it is a good idea to have the hotel near a window or walkway where it can be more or less continually observed.

Here are a few examples that have shown up thusfar.
 This is a Potter Wasp checking out the facilities. The capped hole below is completed, the egg laid and eventually the adult will emerge--that is if it has not been parasitised by another wasp.
This wasp is adding a layer of mud that will form the sealed cap.

 Smoothing the edgesbefore sealing.

 Compare the wings of this wasp which is stationary, with the same wasp below which is in flight.

In the top photo, the wings first pair of wings are longitudinally folded on one another. When in flight in the one just above, they are fully expanded as is normal for wasps. All but one subfamily of the Vespidae have the wings longitudinally folded at rest. The one exception if the members of the subfamily Masarinae. Many hymenopterists regard the masarids as a separate family so in that case all vespids would have the wings folded longitudinally at rest. The most commonly known vespids are the Yellow Jackets, of which the European Wasp is an example. The European Wasp is an introduced and aggressive social wasp that can cause great pain through its stings if one stumbles upon a nest. It, fortunately, does not occur in the Australian tropics but is a great source of irritation in the southeast of the continent.

Usually the wasps provision their nests with paralysed insects. The most common prey is caterpillars.  Many wasps collect pollen and honey with which they stock their nests. In this instance I observed no prey being brought to the nest. Maybe next time.
Sorry bub.

Another wasp taking advantage of the "hotel" is this one. It is a member of the family Sphecidae. This is a diverse group of wasps and many its subfamilies are now transferred to another family, the Crabronidae. Whichever classification you choose, it is a very large group of wasps with species ranging greatly in size and biology. They are predatory and utilise a variety of insects and spiders to provision their nests.
This one seems to be adding some fluffy plant material to the nest. Beyond that I did not see her provision the nest. It was promptly sealed up.

Then this appeared. Any suggestions?

Friday, 1 April 2016

National Moth Week

What is National Moth Week you say. Well the idea comes from the US where it was started as a sort of "moth and insect appreciation" scheme to introduce the public to the world of moths during the summer. After a couple of years, it took on an international scope with countries on several continents "celebrating" nocturnal insects. Even in our winter, we find a variety of moths on any given night. Nights without a moon are most effective.

"Mothing" as it has been called, is a fairly simple activity. On needs a source of light. Strong electric bulb will do but a Mercury Vapour Light or the lights used to attract insect to commercial insect traps are also very effective. The large local hardware stores sell these lights.

Not every light sheet will look like this! This was a recent "evening with moths" experienced by Michael Braby and his friends.


In the meantime, this is what you might see if you put a light and sheet in a natural area.
Click for enlarged view. Also see
for more Queensland moths
Crambidae; Pyraustinae; Agathodes ostentalis 
 Crambidae; Pyraustinae; Dichrocis clytusalis
 Aganaidae: Digama marmorea
 Noctuidae; Catocalinae; Grammodes oculata
Drepanidae; Hypsidia erythropsalis
 Crambidae; Pyraustinae; Notarcha polytimeta
 Saturnidae; Saturniinae; Syntherata janetta
 Crambidae; Acentropine; Tetrernia terminitis
 Geometridae; Ennominae; Bracca rotundata
 Noctuidae; Catacolinae; Sympis rufibasis
 Lacturidae; Eustixis leucophthalma
 Geometridae; Geometrinae; Prasinocyma caniola
Thyrididae; Striglininae; Aglaopus gemmulosa
Arctidae; Arctiinae; Paralacydes maculifsciata
Noctuidae; Catocalinae; Buzara latizona
 Geometridae; Geometrinae; Agathia pisina female
 Noctuidae; Catocalinae; Donuca rubropicta
Geomtridae; Ennominae; Milionia queenslandica

Another pesky Ant

Residents of the Far North of Queensland have to put up with a number of invasive species ranging from Cane Toads to Feral Cats. Ants seem to head the list these days with Yellow Crazy Ants, Anopolepsis gracilipes, among the worst and with a ability to do terrific damage to local animals, large and small.
Yellow Crazy Ant from the web
The ecological destructiveness of these ants is documented in the recent edition of the Kuranda Newspaper. And their potential disaster to northern forests is discussed in an article by Steve Turton on the threat of invasive ants to the Wet Tropics. 

Several other ants have dangerous potential. The Electric Ant, Wasmannia auropunctata, are a tiny ants. They are under 1.5 mm in length and establish colonies everywhere. They attack ground dwelling animals and seem to head for the eyes of the victim. They both sting as well as bite and they are notable because they can occur in the thousands. They have been found in several localities and there is a big push to exterminate them before they "get away". 
Electric Ant biting a human from the web
But the reason for this blog is to report on another ant with which every resident of Kuranda, at least, is familiar. The are the "little black ants" that show up from out of nowhere in the kitchen where they seem to eat most foods. A knife left on the sink with some peanut butter, a sugar bowl, a dish with bread crumbs or a dinner plate with odd bits left and these ants will appear and, if left to their own devices, they will accumulate by the hundreds.
 They don't seem to be particularly distinctive. But my colleague Dr Lori Lach identified them as the imported African Big-headed Ant, Pheidole megacephala.
The "Big-headed" comes from the large-headed soldiers that usually accompany groups of the ants. It is thought that the large muscles inside the head are used to crush seeds or dismember tough-bodied insects. These ants build small colonies that can be identified by bits of wood and frass that accumulate on widow sills, breaks in concrete and the like.

Controlling African Big-headed ants is a real problem. They seem to "delight" in the various ant baits that are available in local shops. Nothing seems to work. If any readers have suggestions, please offer them.