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Backyard BioBlitz – Week of June 18

Backyard BioBlitzI promise no fly death for this week’s BioBlitz catchup.  Instead we just have a bunch of bugs flocking to our sunflower plants.  I have to say, although the blooms on sunflowers are fairly short-lived, and they become rather obtrusive once they start to droop over, they’re worthwhile plants strictly for the variety of denizens they attract.

We start out with three sharpshooters: the broad-headed sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona), the speckled sharpshooter (Paraulacizes irrorata), and…the sharpshooter (Sibovia occatoria).  I’m not sure why something that resembles a yellow zebra, and should thus have plenty of opportunity for a colorful name, is merely known as the generic description for a wide variety of different bugs.  There’s really not a wealth of information about it out there, but I enjoyed checking it out.  Anyway, why are they called sharpshooters?  One explanation is that they can launch themselves through the air like a bullet, but the more common reason is that they can shoot out watery wastes with great force and accuracy.  Because they filter a lot of liquid through their digestive systems to extract the nutrients, they produce a ton of water and carbohydrate waste, which they shoot out of their bodies in streams.  Obviously, they’re tiny enough that you wouldn’t think you were being rained on, but I’ve definitely experienced the sprinkling of the sharpshooter.

Sharpshooter bugs

More often than not, when I encounter them, the main characteristic I notice isn’t the droplet-shooting.  It’s their ability to skitter away from me without their feet ever appearing to lift from the plant.  Whenever I approach one, it glides to the other side of the plant, which is why you may sometimes be surprised to find a plant full of them from one angle and completely empty from another.  They’re very good hiders!  In the shot below, I’m demonstrating a surefire way to get a good shot of one: put your hand on the other side of the plant and it’ll run to the side where your lens is.  I wish I knew what specific sharpshooter this one is–I think its patterns are beautiful.  It’s amazing the intricate designs you find on the tiniest things.

Skittish sharpshooter

Finally, a couple more creepy-crawlies, starting with the ghost spider (Hibana gracilis) on the left.  I noticed it on the impatiens in our front garden but didn’t immediately realize it was a spider (perhaps because it’s missing its two front legs, so the usual eight-leg rule wasn’t in effect this time!).  Eventually it became obvious that it was working on a web.  The two darker-tipped appendages in the very front are pedipalps, which it uses more like hands than feet for things like food manipulation.  On the right is a kind of soldier beetle called the margined leatherwing (Chauliognathus marginatus).  These are very similar to Pennsylvania leatherwings, but the margined ones have a more banded appearance to the spot on their pronotum, they have a black and orange head as opposed to an all-black one, and (an excellent clue) they fly earlier in the summer.  The Pennsylvania leatherwings are most often found on goldenrod, which you wouldn’t catch anywhere in Memphis in June.

Ghost spider and margined leatherwing beetle

And as I like to do when I’ve just shown you something that you might not like, enjoy a lovely member of the plant kingdom: our blooming backyard crape myrtle.

Crape myrtle



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