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Life in the day of a Fritillary

There’s a certain Passionflower vine that grows in an unlikely crack in our pool deck.


Sonoran desert Passion flower, Passiflora foetida, a rambunctious native vine with a weird (but edible) fruit.

It’s the most enduring of all of the tough volunteer passiflora vines that inhabit our yard, exposed to blazing sun each summer afternoon, and even surviving winters with killing frosts, its roots shielded from chill and drought by the aging cement deck. This plant is crammed into the same seam as two other stubborn, spiny volunteers, a Palo Verde tree and a wolfberry, which the vine uses unashamedly for support while clambering up to the sun. This chimæric tangle of species is inconveniently located — crowding an outdoor table and the barbecue grill — but it provides prime nature-watching: towhees scrabble around looking for seeds underneath, whiptail lizards flick their tongues at ants, desert cottontails crouch in its shade, and cactus wrens glean its stems and leaves for insects.

All of the following photos of the Gulf Fritillary’s (Agraulis vanillæ) life cycle were taken on this scrubby Passion flower vine clump in our Phoenix-area back yard. (All photos A.Shock — be sure to CLICK TO ENLARGE, especially the last portrait!)

A single egg.  Each is laid one at a time by a hovering, nimble female Gulf Fritillary

A single egg like a tiny ear of yellow corn. Each is laid one at a time by a hovering, nimble female Gulf Fritillary. The egg is the size of a dull pencil point.


A spiky red larva hatches from the egg and begins to eat and grow. The bright warning colors and spines advertise its body’s ability to concentrate toxins from passionflower leaves. If not discouraged by a human guardian or natural predator, fritillary larvæ can denude an entire plant in a matter of days. When it’s finished eating, the caterpillar anchors itself to its food plant, hangs head downward, forms a brown chrysalis, and pupates.

A new chrysalis looks like a dead passionflower lear. Exactly like a dead passionflower leaf.

A new chrysalis looks like a dead passionflower leaf. Exactly like a dead passionflower leaf.

about to blow

As the chrysalis nears maturity, it becomes transparent and reveals the new butterfly’s colors. The dark sheath on the left side is the wing. 

The chrysalis splits open, and the new butterfly hangs in the shade, pumping up its wings until they're sturdy enough to fly.

The chrysalis splits open, and the new butterfly hangs in the shade, pumping up its wings until they’re sturdy enough to fly.


The adult butterfly’s sole role is reproduction. Never having even take wing, our brand-new fritillary is still on a stem near its split chrysalis when another one lands and mates with it. Egg-laying will begin the cycle over again.


Fritillary face.

Dragon-wing rug

If you had a dragon-wing rug — I do mean a rug made out of dragon wings — and it was terribly old and worn but still in use in the family home, and it lay on the floor of a room at the back with a couple of big armchairs to fold up in and lots of dark wooden bookshelves and not many windows, the rug would probably have fringy bits along the edges, and worn patches where you could see leathery underlayments where the scaly feathers attached, and it might still glitter a little with rainbow membranes.  In fact it might look a lot like this:


White-lined sphinx moth wing detail

This isn’t a dragon wing, it’s the wing of a sphinx (a mystical and legendary creature in itself) but in this case the moth version.  All four of the moth’s wings were discarded by an ærial predator over our yard last night, and all four wings fluttered to the rearwingground and settled within feet of each other.  An owl, or a bat, or a nighthawk had shucked it, perhaps — the body would have made a fat protein-rich mouthful but the wings are dry and awkward to swallow, so the predator neatly clipped them and let them fall.


Given this scenario of on-the-wing food prep, the question remains — if you had a dragon-wing rug — what sort of hunter could do that to a dragon?

  (All photos A.Shock, click to enlarge!)

Posted by Allison on May 13th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Further joys of nidification

There are places like this in the garden and around the house:

nestwagongolden glovespeachflat

Laissez faire places, where neglected green wagons fill with garden miscellany, well-worn gloves are left out in the dust, empty peach flats perch forlornly on footstools. These neglected corners are golden places — especially in spring, when things are looking for private spots to nest. The three opportunities above were discovered by hens of one sort or another, females looking for somewhere to hole up with their young, to tuck in their larvæ, to get uninterrupted rest.

<hideyhen< Nid the First.  The small red arrow points to where a Gambel’s quail hen has been sitting tight in the debris in our garden wagon for a few days.  She’s easier to spot in the photo below, a tight telephoto of her wary eye from the same angle.  I wish her luck: although she’s well-hidden from bumbling humans, we’re not sure how the youngsters will find their way over the sides of the wagon once they hatch.  We have a policy of non-interference in these circumstances, but at some point, a ramp may have to be constructed.  Update: while the hen was away briefly, it was possible to count 9 eggs in place.

hidden hen

Nid the Second.  In the desert, it’s advisable to always look into a shoe before slipping your foot in.  The same goes for gloves left outside for a week: E tried to put on a work glove this morning, and found that his fingers didn’t go all the way in.  Looking inside, he discovered that a female leaf-cutter bee had found the interiors of the stiff leather fingers just right for stashing her eggs (alongfingernid with food for the eventual larvæ) between individually-constructed layers of soft leaves — three green tubes and one purple.  The colors of the tubes depend on the bee’s plant selection.  A spare pair of gloves in the garage that no one was using enabled E to get the yardwork done, and the nest-glove and its contents were left to hatch or be scavenged.

Nid the Third. The final nesting location is more domestic, and will not be news to anyone with cats: it’s the simple miracle of a box spontaneously generating a cat of frootflatprecisely equivalent volume.  Here Miss B has condensed in the peach-flat we call the “Summer Palace” since it sits by the sliding glass door, allowing the sights and smells of the back yard to be taken in at leisure, even in sleep.

With all of these casual nesting choices being made in objects intended for another purpose, I’d like to point out the irony of the fact that the deliberate, pricey nest box we set up for woodpeckers and/or screech owl is unused, so far.  Of course: it’s the wildlife correlation to kids ignoring the toy, but playing with the box it came in.

(All photos by A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Apr 20th 2013 | Filed in birds,close in,cool bug!,natural history,nidification,the cats,yard list | Comments (2)

Sphinx in pinks

spnxpnksIt’s springtime, and under the fluorescent bulb the front porch metamorphoses into a feeding and mating hotspot.  Mantids, huntsmen, sunspiders, cellar spiders, a variety of moths and other jointleggedies and geckos  congregate at this arthropodal equivalent of a savannah watering hole to look for love, snacks, and in the case of the mantids, lovesnacks.

The showy barflies of the moment are the sphinx moths — I believe these are White-lined Sphinxes, Hyles lineata, also known as hummingbird moths — two of whom have been flirting on the front door screen by night and roosting under the eves during the day.  Last night one chose the Cyclamen in a wall pot for its dayroost, and was a patient subject for close-ups in the morning.  (By the way, the outrageous saturation of the pink cyclamen is not artificially boosted — in fact, I had to tone it down a bit because it actually hurt to look at.)

The sphinges hover at flowers like Evening primrose (which aren’t in bloom yet around the yard) and this hovering habit along spnxfacewith their large size (nearly 2 inches long) and feathery-looking body covering give them their nickname of hummingbird moths.  But look at the portrait on the left — they’ve got big nocturnal eyes, which look more owly than hummery to me.

Check out another sphinx moth here, the rustic sphinx whose larvæ feed on Desert willow and tecoma.

(Photos A.Shock, be sure to click to enlarge)

Posted by Allison on Mar 23rd 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

That’s just how we roll around here

Two dung beetles (Canthon sp) rolling their skilfully shaped bit of a fresh cow-pie back to their abode.  No effort spared.  It’s what they do.

Right now, I empathize.  But remember, the lowly dung beetle is a type of Scarab.  It’s said that to the ancient Egyptians the scarab and its dung ball symbolized the sun god Ra rolling the solar disc across the sky each day, transforming bodies and souls the way the dung beetle turns manure into the next generation.  So keep it rolling, right?  (Photo E.Shock, Cochise Co, AZ)

Posted by Allison on Aug 29th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (0)

I AM a scorpion…

But a very, very, VERY tiny one.

This morning we rescued this young scorpion from the pool, where it was stuck limbs akimbo to the surface tension of the water, sending out tiny struggling ripples. Since little scorpions look just like big scorpions except small, a close-up like this one doesn’t provide any clue to scale. So, know that the blue mesh it’s sitting on is the pool skimmer net, and each of the mesh squares is 1/20 of an inch, making the body of this Dinky Dude of the Desert about a quarter inch long, or less than 1/2 inch from head to tail tip (which, you can just see in the photo, is quite capably armed with a tiny but sharply barbed telson).

It’s most likely a Vaejovis spinigerous, the Stripe-tailed scorpion, our most common and not especially venomous species. (Click here for more info about AZ scorpions, and excellent drawings.) I put it over the fence; I don’t have the heart to crush them, even the grown ones. I’ll let the geckos or foxes or thrashers take care of it, or not. Seems only fair to let it try to make its way — after all, it’s only very, very small.

Here’s one of E’s photos:

If you can enlarge the top image twice, do — the photo isn’t perfectly sharp, but you can see the lil sensory hairs on its limbs, all the better to find dinner with, since the eyes aren’t so sensitive. (Upper photo A.Shock, lower E.Shock.)

Here’s a post-script from the subject of the previous post, which, despite its mildly peevish tone, I’ve included at the author’s request:

Ah yes, that’s my ground-bound, tail-dragging cousin, much less economically armed than us pseudoscorpions, with all that extra apparatus dangling off the rear. I’d like to see one of them hitch a ride on a bird or a wasp; the image is grotesque. And, really, is it absolutely necessary to have such unpleasantly potent venom? — it strikes me as strident, and certainly doesn’t win you any friends. Still, I suppose it works for them — they’ve been around since the Silurian.

Posted by Allison on Jul 6th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

I am NOT a tick…

……………………………..or a scorpion!

Fear me only if you are a springtail, or a mite, or any arthropod smaller than me.  I am the size of a lentil, so although my scissor-like pincers look fierce and outsized for my body, and the pedipalps wielding them are Popeye strong and elbowy, you are a looming threat — I run from the shadows of your hands, and the clicking black boxes you hold over me, by scuttling rapidly backwards across the exposed surface you expect me to sit still on.  I am the pseudoscorpion, an arachnid, little cousin to spiders, solpugids, and amblypygids.

<< me, much larger than life on the folded edge of a piece of regular paper (photo A.Shock)

My family and I are tiny predators found all over the world who, if you must use your own reference point to validate us, beneficially snap up even tinier creatures which, grown larger, might trouble you: newly hatched mites and ticks, for instance (they’re cousins, too, and I certainly enjoy that branch of the family, if you catch my drift).  Usually I go contently unnoticed, but this past weekend I found myself exposed to sunlight, spied by thumb-mammals who were trying to pack up a buffet they’d set up for me in the pine dirt on the roof of Arizona (they called it a tent and slept in it, which is rude: I don’t doze on their dinner plate). I had been grazing all night on minute leggy snacks that also wandered up from the forest floor onto the buffet — admittedly, stuffed to the spiracles (it was a plentiful spread!), I was a little muddled and got lost in the folds and channels and couldn’t find my way down by sunrise.

They picked me up — I swear they were about to crush me as a loathly tick, but the next thing I knew they had carried me over to their table where they held me captive for a while, which made me alternately freeze hoping they wouldn’t see me, and flee, which didn’t work either.  So I kept waving my pincers at them until no doubt fearful of my ferocious aspect, they put me back in the needles and dirt, and I went on my way.

<< their idea of scale

my idea of scale >>

You may never have seen or even heard of my family, but we’re numerous and famous.  We’ve been around since the Devonian; that’s 380 million short years, O Primate — fossils attest to that.  Note my efficient body design: NOT “primitive,” please — why improve on perfection? But you seemed to notice us, or care enough to write about us, only since the time of Alexander the Great.  Please don’t look so surprised, of course we know about him — pseudoscorpions have lengthy ancestral memories.  My 2347-times-great grand-cousins inhabited Alexander’s libraries and kept them free of booklice, dust-mites, and silverfish larvae (no doubt King Darius’s libraries, too; we’re the Swiss of the Arthropoda).  Anyway, Alexander’s elementary school teacher, who always had his nose in papyrus scrolls, spared a few words for us and some cousins (who live in clothing and keep them free of moths and other undesirable animalcules, unless he’s referring to lice, which are the undesirable animalcules).  Wait, I have his famous quote about us by heart:

Oh, you need a translation?  Allow me, it’s easy Greek: “Still others occur in books: some like those in mantles, others like scorpions without tails, totally small…”  That’s us.  Then there’s some stuff about fig wasps… he goes on and on about them; those Greeks do like their figs.  Anyway, you see? a shout-out from Aristotle — not too shabby!

So how do we get into your books, or for that matter, high up into the mountainous roof of Arizona?  That is a prized family trait — some of us are phoretic.  (Honestly, the high-falutin’ term shouldn’t surprise you, didn’t I just quote Greek?)  It means we hitch rides on larger organisms, like flies or wasps, and let them carry us around for a while before dropping off (pincers again: very useful things for gripping as well as dining).

<< a pseudoscorpion latched onto a fly thigh (photo by Sarefo, Wikimedia Commons)

We may be commensal, but we’re not parasites: other than a little drag on our ride’s flight efficiency, we do no harm, and it’s a great way to get around to greener, or rather, more joint-leggedy pastures.  And you don’t notice, but we cling to the underside of firewood or potted plants you bring inside from the garden.  From there, it’s just a hop scuttle and creep into your woolen carpet (lots of yummies there!) or bookshelf.  You’d have nothing left to wear or read if it weren’t for us.  A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but without doubt we are excellent guardians against hungry woolen moths, carpet beetle and other dermestid insect larvae, not to mention our less human-centered roles in natural ecosystems: we are leopards on the Serengeti of small-scale soil horizons — though you may need magnifiers to detect our depredations, or to count the legs of our prey.

There’s so much more — I haven’t even told you about our ability to weave protective silken cocoons for ourselves or our offspring by spinning them from spinnerets at the tips of our chelicerae, or that some of us dance elaborate dances before spermatophore transmission (not that that’s any of your business), or that we’re relaxed regarding the concept of eyes, having one pair, two pair, or none at all, or that there are more than three thousand species of us, some limited to single cave sites, others making their living in giant saguaro cactus. But I suspect I’ve bent your ear enough on the efficiencies and curiosities of my large and ancient family.  So, here are a couple of websites (yes, that’s arachnid humor) you can visit, borne there on the underside of your computer’s elytra:

For excellent photos click here, for more in-depth info click here, and for those with inexhaustible curiosity about the order Pseudoscorpionida (thanks for noticing, you free-thinking Prussian, Herr Doktor Haeckel), click here at this excellent resource, or here at our Wikipedia entry.

It’s been nice chatting, but there are collembolids to collar and amphipods to ambush.  And digest.  Have a nice day, and please don’t bother to dust.  Really.

Posted by Allison on Jun 21st 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,etymology/words,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (5)

Pink eye door

We have not been stuffing our keyhole with magenta tissue paper.

The local leaf-cutter bees have been trimming neat circles out of fresh, hot pink Bougainvillea bracts and carefully layering them with pollen in a tubular nest for their eggs. The eggs will hatch into grubs — females deepest* so that the woodpecker or cactus wren gets the vulnerable males near the opening (the population needs fewer males to successfully reproduce, the theory goes) — which will eat the pollen and leaf material and hatch into another generation of solitary bees.  Solitary bees don’t produce honey, and aren’t at all aggressive, but are vital pollinators in the garden.  If you don’t have handy keyholes in your screen doors, you can buy or make nest-boxes with drill holes or bamboo to encourage them.  A few scalloped leaves on your bougs or roses is worth it!

Collateral observation: I use this worn lever door-handle fifty times a day, and I never see it close up like in the photo — hadn’t appreciated the “greek key” design circling the hole.  Also, I’m pleased to see that its patina is just getting good!

*I couldn’t find out if the gender of the eggs develops as a result of depth, or somehow the female eggs are laid first.  The former sounds more plausible to me, but I’d love any ideas?

(For more info, click here . It’s by a British blogger, but the basic lifestyle info is the same for this type of bee on either side of the Atlantic; be sure to enlarge his photos of the cutaway nesting chambers and the circular cuts the bees make on thin, pliable leaves).

Posted by Allison on Jun 15th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,nidification,oddities,yard list | Comments (2)

Mysteries of the front porch

Our front porch doesn’t get much traffic: the occasional UPS guy, guy leaving door hangers flogging local pizza joints, signature-gatherer, political candidate, stranger, or neighbor will come down our sunbaked, overgrown front walk, all the way from the street to the garage to the front door.  But not very often.  The back door is where most of our domestic foot traffic flows.

I should clarify: by “foot traffic” I’m talking about during the day, and bipedal mammalian feet, unless it’s an occasional Cactus wren gleaning the crevices behind the Mexican metal cat mask or the Talavera wall planter with plastic cactus replicas.

At night it’s a different story.  The front porch is where it’s at.  It’s because of the porch light, and the overhang, and the textured vertical surfaces.  All these features seem to have combined to create an ideal locale for a night time hangout, part snack bar, part thoroughfare, and part pick-up joint.  Moths, beetles, and a host of night-flying insects are drawn to the light, while in turn cellar spiders, lacewings, huntsman spiders (big!), geckos and other predators lurk too, waiting for a slip-up among the herds of prey.

<< Praying mantis on the screen door (photo A.Shock)

Last night, we had a small native desert praying mantis on the screen door, swivelling its big-eye head in the dim light.  In real life these aren’t blue, of course (that’s just photo-artsiness to distract from the low-light graininess in my shot) — or green like the giant asian species people buy online to release for garden pest control. These little ones are grayish brown, and this one is full grown at under two inches.  These are the guys whose breadloaf-like eggcases we find in the yard (or, once, in the house on a plant we took in for the winter; the hatchling mantids are green).

Love the mantis!  Or, if you’re very small, fear the mantis!

Posted by Allison on Jun 5th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (4)

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