Pussy Willow in Bloom

Recently I posted a photo of fuzzy white buds on a pussy willow (Salix discolor). Well, the buds have since burst into bloom, and the trails are lined with shrubs covered in fluffy yellow-white flowers.

My coworker Julia (yes, Julia from the porcupine video) and I spent a while examining the flowers on this particular willow, trying to make sense of their anatomy. All we could find were flowers with lots and lots of female parts – no stamens or pollen to be seen.

Finally we figured out what was going on: pussy willows are diecious, with male and female flowers on completely separate plants. The pollen was being provided by the willow growing on the other side of the trail (and yes, there were handsome orange-bottomed bumblebees shuttling back and forth between them).

The other mysterious bit of willow anatomy we puzzled over was the large cone-like structures on the ends of some of the branches. Surely this isn’t what a willow’s fruit looks like?

On a hunch I Googled “pussy willow galls” and sure enough it turns out that these are elaborate galls produced by a tiny midge laying an egg at the tip of an actively growing twig. The midge hijacks the willow’s normal growth and causes it to instead produce layers and layers of leaves at one spot, forming this protective structure around the larva. Definitely one of the most complex and fascinating galls I’ve come across.

I took these photos on Wednesday; this morning we were reminded that by North Woods standards, this is still winter, when we woke up to a thin layer of snow on our cars. Oh well – it seems like just about every year there’s a last freeze after the plants and frogs and everything have gotten started, and they still seem to do all right. Have a good weekend!

Snow Fly? What the Heck Is a Snow Fly?

Or, In Which I Discover Snow Flies and Am Once Again Amazed by How Weird the World Is.

On Valentine’s Day, while setting up luminaries for a romantic candlelight snowshoe hike, I discovered this little creature walking across the surface of the snow.

I’ve posted photos of unexpected winter arthropods before, but those spiders and caterpillars were not this active – when placed on the frozen surface of the snow they quickly stopped moving. What the heck was with this thing, then? Since when do insects walk around in below-freezing temperatures like it’s nothing?

Thanks to the good folks at BugGuide, I now know that this is a snow fly, genus Chionea. (If you see the little round knobs on its back in the photo, those are structures called halteres that are unique to flies.) It is a wingless fly (who knew there was such a thing?) and the only time it’s ever really seen is walking around on the snow in the winter. It’s presumed that being active in the winter helps it avoid predators, and it does this by having antifreeze in its bodily fluids. SERIOUSLY, THIS IS CRAZY, WTF IS THIS THING. Actually it gets even weirder – possibly the only thing weirder than being a wingless fly with antifreeze for blood is being a parasite that specializes on wingless flies with antifreeze for blood, and according to Wikipedia there are nematodes that do just that.

You guys, nature will never stop making me freak out.

creepy crawlies

As the wildflowers slow to a trickle, I’ve had to find something new to be fascinated by and take photos of.  Lately it’s been insects and arachnids.

There are a lot of these small but beautifully-patterned spiders on webs along the trails at the moment; after poking around through some photos online I’m fairly sure they’re something in the genus Leucauge, perhaps what’s called an orchard spider.

I posted recently about the fun I had identifying golden-backed snipe flies online, and I finally managed to get a decent photo of one.

Harvestmen, aka daddy longlegs, are everywhere right now.  My last group of kids for school camp was roughly divided between those who were so terrified of daddy longlegs they wouldn’t sit down on grass, and those who were so fascinated by them they had to pick up every single on they saw and let it crawl around on them.  Sigh.  (Interestingly, for the most point it was the boys who were scared of them and the girls who picked them up!)  I also had numerous kids tell me about how these are the most poisonous animals in the world but have mouths too small for them to bite humans.  Somehow this myth keeps getting perpetuated.  It’s absolutely not true; harvestmen don’t have any venom glands at all.

internet sublimity

You know that moment when the internet delivers up to you, as if by magic, the exact piece of obscure information you’re looking for?  This happened to me a while ago when I’d taken a photo of a wildflower I didn’t recognize, a white one with six petals and long, grass-like leaves.  I Googled something hopelessly generic like “white six-petaled flower in Ohio” and against all odds the very first link I clicked took me to a photo of my mystery flower and the fact that it was called Star-of-Bethlehem (non-native, unfortunately).

Today I noticed a couple links to promising-sounding insect-ID websites on the sidebar of one of the nature blogs I’ve been following, The Little House in the Not-So-Big Woods.  Hmm.  Could one of them perhaps tell me what those interesting little black wasp-like insects with the gold patches on their backs I’d been seeing on the trails recently were?  I went to the BugGuide site, navigated through to a page of photos of dipterans, and bam, there it was!  The golden-backed snipe fly, identified within a minute of clicking on the link.

Just in case any of my coworkers had been wondering about the same critter, I posted a link to Facebook, only to have someone I went to college with comment to tell me that she’d noticed the same insect in her own patch of Ohio woods an hour’s drive away and had been curious about it as well.

The fact that the internet is a powerful tool for a curious naturalist is so obvious it should go without saying, and yet somehow this ability to get so quickly from “a black flying insect with a gold patch on its back that I think is a wasp or a fly” to “golden-backed snipe fly, Chrysopilus thoracicus” never ceases to amaze me.