Answers to your BUG questions

Got a question about a bug?

Send About Amherst's resident entomologist Brian Schultz a photo, estimation of about how big the bug is and where you saw it to and he will do his best to answer your question.

Some past questions with photos:

Nancy, of Northampton, sent these fine photos, inquiring about the bugs on the milkweed.

Says the resident entomologist: " It is a 'milkweed bug' (no kidding). They suck oil from the seeds and are warning-colored as being toxic from feeding on milkweed, like monarch butterflies etc. I don't actually see them that often. You can buy milkweed bugs for school projects but those are lab strains that can be raised on sunflower seeds. "

"The little ones are 'oleander aphids' that are actually common feeding on milkweed (I found many with a class just yesterday) and also toxic and so colored and so on... Cool!"
Saw this funny doormat at the Cummington Fair.

Brian advises doing nothing about cave crickets, which like to hide under things in dark, cold places. But I noticed a blogging exterminator, who casts a colder eye on cave crickets and their ilk, suggests building homemade traps for them with a shoebox and sticky paper.
SQUASH BORER: Per Brian, "They are neat, as a moth that mimics wasps. The larvae can damage or kill a squash plant but usually are not common enough to be a big problem, not usually worth trying to control."
Although a person could cut them out of the stems where they bore, if you just have a small number of plants, he said.


QUESTION Number 1: We always get an influx of ants -- mostly black ants -- in the house as soon as warm weather arrives. Where are they during the winter? Do the adult ants go dormant somehow, or do these spring ants come out of newly hatched eggs or what?

QUESTION Number 2: Is there any non-lethal, ecologically sound way to ward off ants from the lawn, so a person can sit on the grass without getting crawled on bitten?

About Amherst's entomologist explains:

On ants:

Ants usually spend the winter, relatively inactive, in nests deep in

the ground (or trees or other shelter).

If they are not in the house in winter that is good. If they do

appear in the house winter that could be a bad sign that they

are nesting in the house; especially carpenter ants -- relatively big

(3/8"ish) and black -- which nest by making galleries in wood and can do

real damage, but they need wet wood so keeping wood dry is key for them

(see other control notes below).

In the summer, ants coming in the house are looking for food,

usually starting with a few "scouts" who will bring many

more friends to party if they find food, so keeping surfaces, etc. clean

of food particles (off of and behind counters) helps. They are

generally harmless (even carpenter ants if they are just foraging); they

may even help you clean.

In the lawn, ants are mainly a problem and aggressive at or near

nests, and you can perhaps eliminate those, and/or sit far

away from any nests or some favorite nesting sites (or eliminate those

too) like brushy edges or woodpiles or other flat objects on the lawn

(or next to the house) that ants like to nest under. Ants are common

everywhere otherwise (foraging away from nests) and it is unlikely you

could control them all over the lawn (without and maybe even with nasty

chemicals), but again they should not be aggressive nor especially

common far from a nest. You can also put down a blanket or such to make

it harder/rarer for the scouts to run into you.

There are organic controls for the house (e.g., boric acid) and

nests (e.g., spinosad), etc. you can try. Here are some web

A few ants are cute though, says I...

Daryl, of Danvers, writes "Spotted hundreds of these guys (see photo by Daryl above) during a return trip from the Quabbin Reservoir a couple weeks back. Didn't encounter them on our descent from gate 26, but coming back and after a light rain, they were everywhere! We went back and forth with ideas on who or what these cute, sometimes friendly guys were, but thought we'd leave it up to the experts."

Says About Amherst's ecologist, it's a red eft, the terrestrial, larval stage of the newt. Like the famous red-backed salamander, they prefer moisture, thus their appearance in the rain, but they're not as dependent upon it as the red-backs. People mistake them for lizards, in fact, because their skin's drier.

Check out the newt explanation at this University of Rhode Island Web site.
Richard has written with a question for Brian About Amherst''s entomologist:

"I have a colony of leaping, grasshopper like bugs living in my basement bulkhead area, they seem to actually live in the cracks of the cement. They are dark...blackish brown, and have a face similar to a grasshopper, and I think just one long back leg. (I thinkjust one, I could be wrong). I kind of like them and let them live this year instead of gassing them as I have in the past. (Guilt). However, my girlfriend hates them, is scared of them, and wants me to murder them all, especially since they have grown larger this year, maybe 3/4 to an inch in length. Do you know what they are?"

Camel cricket photo courtesy

Here's what Brian says:

"Sounds like crickets. Maybe camel (or cave) crickets (wingless, hump-backed, & silent) or perhaps house or field crickets (adults have wings and may chirp). Try googling those to see which pix look like yours (crickets with camel cave field or house). They are basically harmless. They may lose a leg but should generally have two big back legs. I would ignore or enjoy them,(NOTE FROM MARY -- ARE YOU KIDDING???) but nonchemical controls include boric acid, sticky traps, sealing cracks in and into the house, and keeping trash away from outside walls of the house..."

Marcy, of Amherst, sent the following photo for analysis by About Amherst's entomologist Brian. "I saw this monster (a good three inches long) alongside the Shutesbury river gorge off of Sand Hill Road," she writes.

"It was cavorting with a similar looking, but much smaller bug until we came along, when it slowly ambled off. It kind of vibrated as it walked, emitting a bit of a low level hissing noise. It was impressive enough to spook my sister's 100 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog who leapt straight up in the air when he saw it before running away in fear (almost toppling into the gorge in the process). It was quite the comical scene."

Brian says this type of beetle may just be the largest beetle in the Valley. Here's what he says about it: "It looks like a root borer, a long horned beetle (genus Prionus); they can be 3" and have wing covers a bit short (esp females) and it looks like it has long enough antennae that are curved underneath in your pic. The thorax margins might be kind of sculpted but they are fuzzy in this pic. See Bug Guide.

They can make noise when disturbed too. They are pest of trees (the larvae bore in wood and are even bigger) and these adults can bite if handled (wise or nipped dog?) but otherwise not a threat. Maybe you saw a mating pair; the males are smaller. (Another possibility might be a carrion beetle; with the wings disturbed and a bit fuzzy in your pic some details are hard to be sure of; also large like maybe ca 2"; with short covers and can make noise; harmless; they really seek out and eat carrion).

Eliza's mom of Holyoke sent the following photos of a formidable looking bug, writing,
"We have a bunch of oregano in the front of our house and when it goes to flower, it becomes a haven for all sorts of bee-type creatures. It's fun to watch them go about their business, and most of them are pretty harmless-looking.

And then there's this thing, which is about an inch long, and looks like an emissary of Satan, if Satan had bug minions.

We had one last summer once, too, I think, but this year, it has made numerous appearances. It's mostly black, with one orange band on its back. Its wings are black and opaque, at least while it's sitting on the flower. I have yet to see it in flight, and hope I never do, because this is exactly the kind of bug that CREEPS ME OUT."

AboutAmherst's entomologist says:

"Although it is hard to be sure from these pics, with the wings in view from the side and the mouthparts hidden, it looks to me most like a mydas fly -- very big flies that mimic some spider wasps, both with this color pattern. These flies are harmless to people but predators of other insects (so may be beneficial); NOTE FROM MARY: BRIAN IS CONSTANTLY SAYING THIS ABOUT SATANIC LOOKING BUGS. they are thick-waisted, which is how it looks in these pictures, and will have only one pair of wings.

It could thus also be a spider wasp, but those are very thin waisted (and two pairs of wings, prob. less-dark); the pics could be misleading but they look too thick in the middle for a spider wasp (spider wasps, which hunt spiders to feed alive to their young (!) have very painful stings, but should not be aggressive on flowers away from a nest).

Another possibility, less likely I'd say, is a moth that mimics wasps (e.g., female peach tree borer); some moths even mimic hummingbirds (usually still fairly hairy compared to real wasps). Still other possibles, but also less likely: maybe a sand wasp (would be thin waisted) or a sawfly or horntail ('primitive' wasps that have thick waists and don't sting) that can have similar colors to this and some

are large..."

 Stephanie, of Amherst, sent  a photo of this bug.

"This enormous scary bug was on our screen door Wednesday night," she writes. "It looks like something I would picture in the tropics. Notice the big pinchers on its head....Are they common in these parts? Did this one lose a leg or are they really asymmetrical like that? Would they pinch or bite people? If Brian reports that these are very common, I might have to stop going out after dark."


Better play it safe and stay inside at night, Stephanie. Here's what Brian says:

"It is a stag beetle. Named that since the jaws look like antlers on a stag. They can bite but they are not aggressive. They may rear up and spread the jaws in a threat if they are disturbed (but aren't likely to come after you), and the bite is probably all not that hard here in Amherst (big species in other areas supposedly can draw blood, but I've read those in our area described as a mild pinch). Just catch and move them in a cup/glass with a card if need be, and/or brush them off if they land on you. The males have big mouthparts for grasping and moving other males (e.g., throw them off a tree). It may be attracted to lights.

PS- Things with long mandibles don't pinch as hard as you might think because the leverage is against them; think about how you get more force by biting things inside your jaw with your molars or by cutting with the inside part of a scissors (female beetles might actually bite harder; biting flies hurt a lot more than most biters because they have short, sharp scissor like mandibles that are designed to cut and draw blood).

Brian likes to turn over logs when we're in the woods to see if there are any salamanders cooling off underneath. Found one in the woods on the Hampshire College campus yesterday.

I noticed at least four different kinds of mushrooms, including this little fungi family.

Nancy of Northampton found this snake skin in her garden path yesterday morning. "Do you suppose it belongs to one of those Burmese Mountain Pythons that have escaped into our wild areas?" she writes AboutAmherst's ecologist and entomologist Brian. "Inquiring minds and weed pulling hands want to know."

In fact, it could be a baby python or any number of species of pet snake that has escaped, says Brian. But it is more likely a garter snake, by far the most commonly found snake in local yards.

The only other wild striped snake around here besides the garter, which has clear stripes, is a ribbon snake, which is less common and found in wetter areas.

"Garter snakes are harmless; they have no venom and flee when you approach," writes Brian. "They might bite (not too hard as snakes go) if you pick them up, but are more likely to squirt a nasty smelling anal fluid." YECH! (Mary's editorial comment.) "They eat both good and bad guys in your garden, for example toads, small rodents and large insects."

Nancy from Northampton is wondering about some nasty (I added the adjective) wasps. "These gooseneck loosestrife plants really attract the bees and wasps," she writes Brian, AboutAmherst's bug consultant."They are pretty (the wasps) but are they safe?" The blue one, she writes, appears to be a mud dauber. The second one she is not so sure about.

She's right, says Brian. ALERT: SOME OF THE FOLLOWING DESCRIPTIONS RATED R FOR UNSEEMLY VIOLENCE: The blue one is a mud dauber, whose females build solitary mud tube nests and then sting and paralyze spiders and pack them in the nest for their larvae to eat alive. As Brian often says, "Nature is nasty."

The second wasp looks like a digger wasp, which comes from the same family as the mud dauber or thread-waisted or Sphecid wasps, although they are not so thread-waisted. They make ground hole nests and paralyze crickets or grasshoppers for their young. "The group is able to sting strongly and repeatedly but usually are not very aggressive at all even around the nests and especially not while feeding on a flower for nectar/pollen, so I would not call them dangerous (to us anyway)," says Brian.


Here's a little bug that my sister Maureen sent for analysis by Brian at Brian's World. It looks to her like a "piece of artwork." She saw it at the Trevor Zoo, in New York state. The only zoo found in a high school in the country, it was established in 1936 by Frank Trevor, of the Millbrook School, the independent high school's first biology teacher. It has over 150 exotic and indigenous animals.About 40 of the Millbrook students work there.

"Looks like a leaf beetle and like the species called a burdock beetle or false potato beetle," Brian says. The false beetle likes other potato-family plants but doesn't actually like potatoes. It also has prettier stripes than the real Colorado potato beetle.

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