Northland Nature: Looking at a midsummer night gatheringIlluminated by the near-full moon, I step out into the summer night. The hot temperature of the day still lingers now after sunset, and under these conditions I expect I’ll have no trouble finding the insects that I seek. And some find me.
Illuminated by the near-full moon, I step out into the summer night. The hot temperature of the day still lingers now after sunset, and under these conditions I expect I’ll have no trouble finding the insects that I seek.
And some find me.
It does not take long for the local mosquitoes to locate me, and along my route I’m escorted by many of these abundant insects. They belong to a group of insects that we do not appreciate, but out here in the darkness of the yard I see another kind that most people do enjoy, the fireflies.
In its persistent search for mates, the male firefly scans the plants of its territory while constantly flashing its lights. It is hoping for a responding glow from the female on the ground or plants beneath. Very few animals use bioluminescence (light-generating) in the Northland, and I pause to watch their activities for a while.
I left the lights of the garage on as a way of inviting the nocturnal wanderers to stop in. As
I approach the flood lights, I see that my plans have succeeded. I’m greeted by myriads of insects, abounding both in numbers and variety.
Most abundant are the tiny “gnats,” often used as a collective term for tiny flies and midges. None seem to hold still long enough for a good look.
Here too are a couple of minute wasps, and even a firefly has come by. Flies, mosquitoes and their larger cousins, the crane flies, are here too.
Crane flies are often called giant mosquitoes. Though they are in the same classification order as mosquitoes, most live a very different life, not having the mouthparts to bite us even if they want to.
Thanks to my relative closeness to water, several kinds of caddisflies are settled under the lights as well. With folded-back wings and long antennae, they are easy to discern. They are another example of an insect that is probably better known in its immature stage than as a grownup.
Larvae build little “houses” of plant debris and move through their early life in an aquatic world. These insects are interesting and active, but it is the moths that I came to see.
Close cousins to the well-known and loved butterflies, the nocturnal moths are less known. They are, however, much more common than their day-flying relatives.
Both butterflies and moths belong to an order called Lepidoptera, so named because of dust-like scales they have on their wings. The two members are not equal in diversity. About 95 percent of Lepidoptera species are moths, not butterflies.
The differences between butterflies and moths can be obvious when we see the colorful former ones that flutter about in daytime while the latter are more drab and move through the night. Distinctions become more clouded when we see that some moths fly in the day and some butterflies are drab-colored.
Most of the ones that I see here tonight are small and brownish-gray, “typical” little moths. Some, however, look drab-colored until I view the
underwings. These underwing moths may have patterns of beautiful pinks, whites and yellows on the hidden wings.
On the ground, I locate one, a kind of tiger moth, with dazzling bright orange bands on the underwings. Had the dark outer wings remained in place, I would have not seen these bright colors.
Nearby are a couple of moths that show a yellow color on all four wings, a pattern much like that of yellow sulphur butterflies that we often see in our yards during the day.
Beneath the light, on the ground, I find a large brown moth with a thick body and folded wings. This sphinx moth is one of many that have green “hornworm” caterpillars.
As always, the opportunistic predators are here too and as I peruse the scene on the wall of the garage, I locate several species of spiders. The web-makers of all four types, the cobwebs, sheet webs, funnel webs and the large circular orb webs, are all present. Each waits in or near its snare hoping to snag a midnight snack.
Non-web making wolf spiders also hunt with the patience of a predator. With all this potential food here, I’m sure they will find plenty. One spider has a tent caterpillar (armyworm) in its web.
As I turn to leave and go back to the house, I notice that more insects are coming to the garage wall. Most go undetected by us, but looking out on the insect activity of this, on a typical night of midsummer, tells us just how common and diverse the insects around us are at this time.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.