Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Spined Micrathena - Spiny Orbweaver Spider

     If you've taken a walk in the woods lately, you've likely run into a spider web. Chances are pretty good it was the orb web of the Spined Micrathena (Micrathena gracilis) or Spiny Orbweaver Spider. It is one of the most common woodland spiders, and it commonly builds webs across trails. Why does it always build its web across a trail where something will run into rather than parallel to the trail? Because those same trails used by people and larger animals are also the most likely to be used by the flies and other small insects that make up the vast amount of prey for these bizarre shaped spiders. Though they are a nuisance, they are harmless to people. 

Spiny Orbweavers are spiny and hard indeed.

     Female Spined Micrathena Spiders have 10 spines or points above their bodies and are cone shaped below. They can come in a variety of colors, but often are darker below and lighter colored (often white, yellow, or orange) above. This is a form of counter-shading, helping to camouflage them in the dappled light of the forest. They hang head down in the center of their webs, and from above match the darker forest floor, but from below match the lighter colored sky. They can get to about half an inch long and only the females build webs.

When looking at the bottom portion, the body is cone shaped.

     The males are rarely seen. They only have two spines and are very slender, being only half the size as adults than the females. They often station themselves near a female's web seeking an opportunity to mate with her. They have to be careful or the larger female will eat them. 
     The Genus Micrathena is derived from the Greek adjective for "small" and the Greek goddess Athena, who was the patron of the spinning/weaving arts. There are about 100 different species in this Genus, but only 3 in Eastern North America (with one additional one in the West). Micrathena gracilis, the Spined Micrathena, is the most common and ranges all the way to Costa Rica. Its specific name means "slender, slight, or graceful." A neat little name for these web builders. 
     The hard spiny body of the Spiny Orbweaver is likely a protection against predators such as birds and lizards. Since the spiders rarely if ever bite, this is important. They will often try to scurry away to a corner of their web if disturbed. They will also sometimes play dead, lying there immobile with their legs tight against their armored bodies. But their most interesting defense is the low pitched buzz (stridulation) they emit when scared. Next time you approach a web, blow on it and see if you can hear it.

When frightened, Spined Micrathena Spiders may pull their legs tight and rely on their armor for protection.

     Micrathena Spiders are in the family Araneidae, the Orbweavers. Their spiral webs are usually less than a foot across, but are placed 3-7 feet up high, perfect height for someone to walk into. When sunlight hits them, they can be really showy, giving them another common name: CD Spiders, since it might appear as though someone had strung one up across the trail.
     Unlike many other orb building spiders, Spined Micrathenas are diurnal, active during the day. They actually eat their webs (all but the supporting frame threads) every night. It takes them about an hour to build their webs again the next morning. About two thirds of their prey are Diptera, or flies. Spiny Orbweavers are a bit slow and clumsy, so their prey gets away a lot. They also differ from many other spiders in that they bite their prey first before wrapping them up, just the opposite of what most other orb web spiders do. 
     These small and common orb web spiders only live about a year (the males not even that long). By late summer and early Fall, the females will lay their eggs in a fuzzy egg sac hidden off to the sides of their webs. The adults all soon die, but the eggs will overwinter and young spiderlings will hatch out to spread through the forest the next spring. 
     So the next time you run into a web in the woods, it may be that you just destroyed the handiwork work of these little spiders. Before you curse them too badly, remember that they're harmless and doing you a favor by catching flies and other small flying insects. If you see one of their webs across your path, enjoy the craftsmanship along with the unusual color and shape of their maker. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Cicada Killers or Cicada Hawks

A female Cicada Killer attempts to carry off her prey.

     Eastern Cicada Killers (Sphecius speciosus) are large solitary wasps that go several other common names: Cicada Hawks, Sand Hornets, and Giant Digger Wasps for example. They are in the family Crabronidae, which has 4 species in North America and 22 world wide, all specializing in preying on cicadas. Their scientific name translates to "Wasp" and "showy" respectively.
     They certainly do stand out. They're big, up to 2 inches for females around here. Though solitary, males will form territories around good nesting habitat, guarding what are called leks, or breeding grounds. Since they buzz loudly and fly up to investigate anything flying through their territories, they can be quite intimidating. They grapple mid air, sometimes crashing to the ground while engaged with one another. here's a short video of a male guarding a hole, waiting for an available female to stop by:

     Recall however that stingers on bees, ants, and wasps are modified ovipositors, used for egg laying. Since males do not lay eggs, they cannot sting. They do have what amounts to hard tip on the end of their bodies though, a pseudo stinger that can poke, but again, this is all bluff.
     Females Cicada Killers can sting, but almost never do. Researchers have had to hold them in place to illicit stings, and supposedly the stings are no worse than a pin prick. They would only sting if caught by hand, stepped on barefoot, or got trapped in clothing. Walking or mowing over them will not aggravate them into stinging.
     Many people confuse Cicada Killers with the large, introduced European Hornet. These large yellowjacket-like wasps are capable of nasty stings. Since they also hunt large insects, seeming to like to eat cicadas as well, they are often called cicada killers when indeed they're not.

A European (German) Hornet attacks a Cicada. They're often confused with Cicada Killers. A smaller Yellowjacket hovers overhead.

     Female Cicada Killers require a cicada for their young to develop. They hunt for them, stinging them until they're paralyzed. Although you'd think they catch more male cicadas who are singing and advertising their presence than females, they seem to get an equal number of each. They go after the various species of "annual cicadas" (those that come out every year, but individuals may spend several years feeding underground) mostly. The Periodical 13 and 17 year cicadas have evolved to emerge earlier and are done breeding by the time Cicada Killers usually emerge. After stinging a cicada, they carry their prey back to their burrows. Since the weight of a cicada, especially the larger females, is 2-3 times the weight of a female Cicada Killer, that is no easy task. Here's a short video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel showing one attempting to do so:

     Cicada Killer burrows average about 6 inches deep, but can go deeper than 2 feet. The females excavate them using their jaws to loosen the soil and then pushing the dirt back out the holes using modified spines on their legs. This means that they are very picky about where they build their nests. They like to choose bare, loose, well drained (often sandy) soil, sunny if possible. Sometimes 2-3 females will share an entrance, but each then digs burrows away from the main tunnel to use as their own chambers.
     Each female has a cell she provisions with the paralyzed cicadas. She leaves one cicada if she decides to lay an unfertilized egg which results in a male Cicada Killer. She will leave 2-3 cicadas if she decides to leave a fertilized egg, resulting in a female wasp. Thus the males are smaller, much smaller if they were provisioned with a small male cicada. Eggs are placed under the second pair of legs of the paralyzed cicada. Females sleep in the burrows at night.

A lek, or breeding area, full of Cicada Killer burrows.

     After a couple of days, the eggs hatch. The larvae feed for about 2 weeks, feeding on the cicada, leaving its vital organs for last so it can stay fresh longer. The young pupate and overwinter in a cocoon, emerging in late June or July of the following year.  All adults die after breeding, none making it past the Fall. Adults nectar at flowers and feed on sap flows, being very minor pollinators.
     Though these huge wasps, among the largest in North America, can be intimidating, they are harmless to people. It is unfortunate that they sometimes choose our lawns, garden beds, window boxes, and playing fields to sometimes build their burrows, but these are beneficial insects. They can be discouraged by mulching or heavily planting the areas they favor, but should just be left alone otherwise. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Eastern (Black) Ratsnakes

     The Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) is our longest and one of our most commonly seen snakes. Formerly called the Black Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta), both it's common and scientific names have been changed and formalized. But many people still refer to it as a Black Rat Snake or simply Black Snake. It is the longest snake in the region, the only one that regularly grows to over 6' in length. The world record is one that measured 101 inches from its snout to its vent. The Virginia record is a 67.3 inch one. Its large size along with ability and tendency to climb trees makes this snakes among the most visible in our area.
     Although the large size of Eastern Ratsnakes may make them seem intimidating, they are harmless to people. They will only bite if threatened or handled, and then only about half the time anyways. They prefer to slither away quickly, sometimes musking the perceived threat with a foul smelling liquid if handled. Eastern Ratsnakes will sometime curl up is an S-shape, hissing, vibrating their tail tips, and striking in an attempt to intimidate the potential predator into leaving it alone. The teeth are relatively small for such a large snake, leaving little pin pricks marks and not really causing any great harm. 
     This is a beneficial creature to have around. As the name suggests, they are superb at controlling rodents, being able to get into their burrows and tackling even large rats, killing their prey by constriction. They are however also opportunists, feeding on whatever is available and small enough for them to eat, including birds, eggs, salamanders, shrews, chipmunks, and sometimes larger prey. Because they are such good climbers, they sometimes get themselves in trouble with people who put up bird boxes that haven't been protected sufficiently, eating the occupants. 

Eastern (Black) Ratsnakes are excellent climbers and are often seen basking in trees.

     But overall, they are great allies and find plenty of rodents in urban areas to satisfy their appetites. They can really gorge themselves when food is plentiful. I once was feeding a large 6'+ ratsnake in a nature center I worked at. I was curious as to how many mice it could eat at one sitting. After 23 mice, I had nothing left to feed it, and it was still looking for more. 

     But ratsnakes can also go long times between meals. They can go months without eating if need be, their cold blooded metabolism being very efficient at not burning up energy reserves. This makes them arguably better at rodent control than other predators such as foxes, owls, hawks, and cats, who not only can't get into the rodent burrows, but also cannot go such long times with out eating, having to either move away or die. Not so with ratsnakes. When the rodents do return, they can resume eating with no real harm to the snakes.
     Luckily many people realize the benefits of having ratsnakes around. Sometimes they're referred to as the "Farmer's Friend" and purposely released into barns and out buildings. Their shiny black coloration, with a bit of white on their chin/neck and partial checkerboard pattern on their bellies helps to distinguish them from some of the other black snakes around. 
     But the young are sometimes confused with other snakes because they differ so much in coloration. They have a blotched pattern along their backs that turns all black as they age. Some people confuse them for other snakes such as copperheads or rattlesnakes (especially since these snakes, like many others, will shake their tails in the leaves and thus sometimes sound like a rattle). One of the best identification features for juvenile ratsnakes is a dark line that crosses the eyes to the mouth, almost like a unibrow. 

A juvenile Eastern (Black) Ratsnake, note the line connecting the eyes and blotched pattern.

     That the young sometimes put on a good show by pretending to be big and bad to scare away dangers sometimes backfires when they encounter people. This use to be a good defense against a predator that wasn't sure if it was dangerous. But now of course this can cause people to be frightened and often ends up with them killing the juvenile snakes. 

     Here's a short video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel that shows you one such display: 

     Eastern Ratsnakes take at least 4 years to reach maturity and breeding age. They lay their eggs (from 5-44 of them depending on the size of the snake) in late June or July around here. They often seek a rotting log or compost pile, the site helping to keep the eggs warm. If the site is a good one, they may use it year after year. The eggs hatch 60-75 days later, with the parents showing no parental care other than finding a good place to hide the eggs and the young are capable of catching their own prey at birth. If nothing eats them, they can live up to 22 years and 11 months, the record so far in captivity. 

     Eastern Ratsnakes overwinter in a dormant state referred to as brumation. Brumation sites (hibernacula) are often used year after year, with some sites containing several snakes. Occasionally they will share the hibernaculum site with other snake species, including venomous ones such as copperheads and rattlesnakes. This has led to the mistaken belief that they can mate with venomous snakes and thus produce the patterned young. This of course is completely false.
     I always am thrilled when I find an Eastern Ratsnake, often still calling it a Black Rat Snake in my excitement. I always try and tell folks about how beneficial they are, try to allay people's fears. I hope that these great and adaptable snakes can live in harmony with us well into the future. This will benefit people, but I also want our younger generations to be thrilled to find a really big snake, like I always am, and be able to talk about them to their kids in the future.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Hercules Beetles - Rhinos, Unicorns, Oxen and Elephants

     The Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynstes tityus) is the heaviest beetle in North America. This huge creature (up to almost 3 inches) goes by several other names as well: Rhinoceros Beetle, Unicorn Beetle, Ox Beetle, Horned Beetle, and Elephant Beetle for example, though other beetles are often better known by these names. The scientific Genus name is derived from the Greek for "lord" or "ruler" while the specific epithet refers to a Greek mythological giant Tityus. They certainly are impressive beetles. Members of the same family are also large and have all sorts of horns and projections. I've been lucky enough to come across a particularly large Elephant Beetle (Megasoma elephas) male, a close cousin, among the palm logs in El Salvador.

An Elephant Beetle we found among the fallen palm trunks in El Salvador.

     As large and heavy as they are, these beasts can fly. I remember one evening when I was manning a black light set up to attract moths and other insects. Everything at night seems a bit louder and more ominous, and I was actually a bit startled when I heard a Hercules Beetle come crashing through the bushes and crash into the hanging white bed sheet. It was as though someone had tossed a rock into the cloth.
     Male Hercules Beetles are larger and heavier than the the females. They have impressive horn-like pincers that they use to combat other males. Males often setup their territories on a rotting log (preferring ash trees) near the females which have attracted them using pheromones. They take on all challengers in their pursuit of a mate. They try to push, grab and shove each other off the log, holding on tight with their powerful legs. Whenever I find one, it always surprises me how strong a grip they can have. The largest and strongest males gain the opportunity to mate with any females who choose their logs to lay their eggs in their logs.

An Eastern Hercules Beetle grub and a females adult (note the lack of horns).

     Females lack horns. They lay their eggs into the rotting wood. The grubs that are born get to be huge in the two (sometime three) years it takes them to mature and then pupate. They feed on decaying wood, causing no harm to living trees. Despite the fearsome look of the beetles or grubs, and especially the huge pincers of the males, they are harmless to people.

A male Eastern Hercules Beetle, dark from being well hydrated and freshly emerged from the moist soil. 

     Adult beetles live for several weeks to a few months. They can vary quite a bit in coloration, with fresher and better hydrated beetles often appearing darker than older and more dehydrated ones. When buried in the soil, their shells seem to absorb moisture and darken. They typically have an almost velvety appearance. Adults feed on rotting fruits and sap. I've had fair success feeding them fruits with a bit of molasses on them. They seem to love the molasses and maple syrup that's been watered down just a bit.
     These beetles are always a thrill to find, and we use to have people bring them to the nature center I worked at every year, worried about these insects, and always happy to learn they are harmless and not garden pests. With the loss of mature forests and because they are negatively affected by light pollution that disorients them, they're not as common to find anymore. Their strength and size has resulted in their various common names, but regardless of what people call them, they're always impressed when they do find them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Butterflies and Moths as Pollinators

A Sulphur and Buckeye butterflies nectar on a Stokes Aster.

     Although often considered great pollinators, both butterflies and moths really are not the best at moving pollen from one flower to the next. Unlike their pollinating colleagues, the bees, they just are not built to be good pollinators (and since many moths do not even feed as adults, many don't pollinate flowers at all). They lack enough hair to effectively carry pollen. Their long legs and proboscis often keep them from making much contact with pollen anyways and they thus don't carry much to other plants.  

While not the best pollinators, this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has certainly picked up polled to transfer by burying itself in this daylily.

     But they do pollinate some plants. About 8% of the world's plants rely on Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) as their primary pollinators. The pollination of plants by butterflies and moths is referred to as psychophily. Some long-tongued moths (such as sphinx moths) are especially adept at pollination of night blooming flowers, and some plants have evolved to attract them as their primary pollinators. This was famously theorized by Darwin in 1862 when he predicted that an extremely long Madagascar orchid must have a pollinator with a proboscis 11 inches long in order to reach the nectaries, and he was right. Moth pollinated flowers are often tubular, white (what other color would show up at night?), and fragrant. 

The Ailanthus Webworm Moth, a daytime flying moth, favors goldenrods to nectar at.

     But there are also daytime flying moths, some of which are colorful. And of course there are many butterflies (Virginia has about 168 and Maryland has about 151 different species) who also visit flowers. Much like other pollinators, they are capable of learning which flowers to visit and which give them the best rewards. This benefits the butterfly/moth because it doesn't waste time finding flowers with less rewards unless it has to, and because it doesn't have to figure out how to access the nectar every time. It benefits the flowers of course because the pollen from the same species of flower ends up in another of the same species. Less is wasted than if the pollinator visited flowers randomly. Thus pollinators have evolved to benefit themselves and the plants they choose to visit.
     You can also make your yards and gardens more attractive to them (and to other pollinators) by doing just a few simple things, some butterfly/pollinator gardening basics:
  •Avoid using pesticides and/or herbicides.
  •Plant for continuous blooms throughout the seasons.
  •Use mass plantings.
  •Include host plants.
  •Provide basking sites.
  •Consider puddling areas.
  •Try to locate your garden in the sunniest location you have.
  •Consider flower color and shape.
  •Avoid double-flowered or other cultivars.
  •Go Native! Use the native plants they evolved with, not just to feed the adults, but even more so the caterpillars which often are very specific about the host plant they will feed on. 
     So enjoy these colorful visitors to your gardens and yards. They may not be the best pollinators in the world, but they play their part. Even more so, their caterpillars form the largest proportion of food for our migratory birds, while the adult moths form the main dish for our bats. You might even recognize the same ones who visit from such things as damaged wings, knowing they learned that your yard had the best rewards. They then reward the plants in your yard, as well as the people who watch them. 

This Great Spangled Fritillary got to know me pretty well in my yard. licking salt off my hand.

Monday, June 20, 2016

National Pollinator Week

A bumblebee, sweat bee, and orange-spotted mint moth all feeding on a native Green-headed Coneflower. 

     Happy National Pollinator Week! To help celebrate, I hope to post about a pollinator each day for us to learn about and appreciate. But first a bit on pollinators in general. There are over 200,000 species of pollinators worldwide. These include such animals as bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and hummingbirds. We owe them much, as it is often said that one out of every three bites of food we enjoy is due to the direct actions of an animal pollinator. In fact, three quarters of all plants regardless depend on animal pollinators in order to reproduce. 
     When thinking about planting things to benefit our pollinators who benefit us so often, it is most important to consider the use of native plants. Some studies show that native plants are four or more times more attractive to native pollinators than exotic plants. This of course makes perfect sense since these plants and animals evolved together, sometimes to the point that one cannot exist with out the other. 
     So the most important consideration is to plant plants that are locally native. These plants are not only adapted to grow in this type of habitat, but are what the pollinators have been using for thousands of years. It is always best to use straight wild species, rather than cultivars or nativars which have been selected for certain traits. When we plant a flower that has been bred to appeal to us through a novel color or look, it may not have the same appeal to the pollinator its parent plants originally evolved with. What we think might be more attractive often isn't the case with the pollinator, some of which see flowers through different spectrums or look for certain traits in them. This is especially true of plants bred to have double flowers or blooms with extra large petals, since they often sacrifice nectar/pollen for the extra showy flowers.
     Finally something to consider are the multiple uses you get with native plants. Many exotic plants may have a pretty flower that may (or may not) provide nectar for a short time each year while blooming, but it otherwise provides little habitat for pollinators or other native wildlife. Take the Chinese Aster (Callistephus) for example. It is a pretty flower, comes in many color forms and is widely planted (and escaped and naturalized into some areas). The blooms on some varieties provide some nectar and pollen to a few pollinators for a short bloom time each year. But only two species of caterpillars have been recorded as feeding on it. It is for the most part and for most of its plant life a barren habitat for wildlife, taking the place of what might have been a much more beneficial native plant.

A Pearl crescent Butterfly feeds on a native Orange Coneflower, but only because its caterpillar had a native aster to feed on, the only thing the caterpillars can eat.

     Contrast that with one of  our many colorful and attractive native aster species, many adapted to a variety of growing conditions. Now you have flowers that not only provide attractive flowers for the garden and a similar look, but also serve a habitat function. In addition to pollinators visiting them, most also supply seeds for birds such as finches and sparrows. But 109 different caterpillar species have also been documented feeding on them. These in turn feed the vast majority of our nesting native birds (97% of terrestrial birds feed on insects, particularly during the nesting season, most of which are caterpillars) and most of the 17 bat species found in our region (all of which are insectivores and many of which prefer moths over other insects). 
     So you can see how something as simple as choosing a native plant species can not only serve to provide for pollinators, but then serve other habitat functions as well. So this National Pollinator Week, enjoy the pollinators in our gardens, farms, and parks. If you're able to, include locally native plants in your gardens. This way you too can help the pollinators who are always helping us. 

Three Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies, Virginia's state insect, feed on a native Buttonbush. Nineteen species of caterpillars feed on the plant itself and many birds eat the nutlets.  

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ichneumon Wasp Trogus pennator

The parasitoid ichneumon wasp Trogus pennator.

     The natural world is intricately connected and isn't always what some people might consider nice in how it works. Take for example the colorful Ichneumon Wasp pictured above, Trogus pennator. It is about an inch long and the the iridescence of its wings can make the colors look variable. This pretty wasp is harmless to us (its coloration is thought to perhaps mimic stinging wasps to protect them from predators), but certain caterpillars need to take care when she's around.

Trogus pennator wasp searching for Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars ona Tuliptree leaf. Notice how the iridescence can alter the perceived color of the wings.

     All 6 members of the Genus Trogus in North America are parasitoids of swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. "Trogus" comes from the Greek for "gnawing." "Penna" is Greek for "feather wing" and the wings are indeed attractive. Ichneumon wasps like Trogus in the subfamily Ichneumoninae all need caterpillars as hosts for their young. Adult females find certain caterpillars and inject a single egg into them. The caterpillar continues to feed and grow as though healthy, but that is an illusion. It is walking dead, doomed to die when it pupates with the Ichneumon emerging from its zombie host. That is why they are called parasitoids rather than parasites. Both terms imply an organism feeding and harming the host, but parasitoids always kill the host, where parasites do not always result in death. 
     Trogus pennator is no different. Adults may feed on nectar or honeydew, but the females need caterpillars in order to reproduce. They hunt for Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars (Family Papilionidae), apparently being able to use any of our native ones as hosts. These wasps seem to show a distinct preference for searching on the host plants of swallowtail caterpillars, somehow being able to identify them visually or perhaps even chemically. They always seem to hunt in such swallowtail host plants as pawpaw (Zebra Swallowtail host plants), tuliptree (as in the photos where Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars would be feeding), cherry (Tiger Swallowtail hosts), sassafras (Spicebush Swallowtail hosts), spicebush (Spicebush Swallowtail hosts), snakeroot (our native Pipevine Swallowtail host), pipevines (where planted since not a locally native plant for Pipevine Swallowtails), and members of the carrot family (Black Swallowtail host plants). They also then seem to target leaves with damage, like what a feeding caterpillar would leave.
     When a swallowtail caterpillar is found, she injects a single egg and the zombie-like life of the caterpillar begins. The wasp larva feeds inside, but does not destroy the vital organs, allowing the caterpillar to continue to grow. Eventually the swallowtail caterpillar forms its chrysalis. But what emerges is the adult wasp rather than a swallowtail butterfly. This endoparasitoid exits through a small circular hole in the side of the chrysalis, leaving just an empty skin behind. The wasp then looks for a mate and starts the life cycle all over again.  
     While they may kill swallowtails, they do not eradicate them. Keep in mind that the only things the larvae of these wasps can feed on are swallowtails. It would make poor evolutionary sense to kill off all of the only host you can survive on. So they do kill some, but not all, as they have evolved together to coexist. That involves behavioral adaptations by the swallowtails as well such as choosing low places to lay eggs which are less attractive for wasps to search or feeding at night such as the Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars do when the wasps (and birds) would be sleeping. 

An empty swallowtail butterfly chrysalis. Notice the circular exit hole where the wasp emerged after consuming the host.

     So this may seem cruel, but these are just all parts of the nature puzzle. People who know me know that I like to use a puzzle analogy for the natural world. It's a puzzle because certain pieces fit together (such as the swallowtails needing certain plant caterpillar hosts and Trogus needing swallowtail caterpillars). As a naturalist, I try and solve as much of the puzzle as I can, knowing this will be life long learning. But as any puzzle maker knows, you need all the pieces or you can't really complete the puzzle. As the great naturalist Aldo Leopold is credited with saying "the first rule of intelligent tinkering is not to lose the pieces." Unfortunately we are losing pieces through extinction and loss of habitat all the time. 
     We also know that you can't take a piece from another nature puzzle where it fit perfectly well and stick it into another puzzle. That causes other pieces to no longer fit well. This is what happens when we introduce invasive exotic species into new habitats. I love trying to learn how the pieces fit together, even if they are sometimes a bit gruesome in the way they do so. The life cycle of this colorful wasp is just one example of the fascinating puzzle of a natural world we all live in.