Another denizen of my lawn

I often write about the diversity of invertebrates that dwell in our unkempt yard, from the leafminers that colonized the first wildflower that popped up in the middle of it to the three dozen species that emerged from a shovelful of sod last spring. But we’ve also tallied 126 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians in our yard and adjacent woods since we’ve lived here. One that has figured prominently in recent weeks is this porcupine:

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Last fall I often heard it mumbling contentedly to itself as it grazed in the lawn outside my office window, but this was generally at dusk and it wasn’t usually around when Julia and I were outside. Over the winter we could regularly see it up in its favorite hemlock tree at the edge of our backyard, slowly dismantling it, and only sneaking into our yard at night to prune our raspberry canes. But lately it has been waddling through our yard on a daily basis, munching on the vegetation, completely unconcerned about our presence. It spends as little time as possible standing up, instead flopping down with its face buried in whatever it’s eating.

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The other day we watched it for a while as it slowly worked its way toward the strawberry patch where we were sitting, and when it started to munch on a strawberry plant, Julia actually pushed its face away and it didn’t feel like that was anything worth raising its quills about. It just turned slightly and went back to munching on dandelion leaves.

So yesterday morning when I headed out the front door to do some yard work and saw the porcupine there, I decided it was time for a little photo session.

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I’m sorry to say that what looks like its left eye in the above photo is actually a bloated tick. There’s one below its right eye too:

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We don’t have any deer ticks in our yard, but for a few weeks in the spring there is a fair amount of dog ticks. They’re easy to spot when they venture onto our pant legs, and we hand-feed them all to our chickens.

In the next few shots the porcupine is enjoying some dandelion greens, which seem to be among its favorite menu items from our yard.

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After the first few photos, which were taken with my 105mm macro lens (the one that happened to be on my camera when I grabbed it), I switched to the 18-55mm so I could get closer to the porcupine and not have so much grass in the way. In the next few shots it lumbered within about a foot of my face, and I had to keep backing up.

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It contemplated this white violet for a moment, but ultimately decided to spare it.

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It seems to prefer eating forbs, but I got one photo that clearly shows it biting off a blade of grass:

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I think it’s pretty adorable when it uses its front paws to hold the plant it’s munching on.

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This last couple of shots was taken as it began to waddle back down to the woods, pausing to bite the head off a dandelion along the way.

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Life in a Pinch of Duckweed

Five years ago, in June 2014, I was conducting a natural resource inventory for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust on a property in Perry, Maine (just across Passamaquoddy Bay from New Brunswick), when I came across this interesting little wetland:

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The low area surrounded by a fringe of speckled alders (Alnus incana) consisted of an unstable Sphagnum mat covered with buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) and hoary sedge (Carex canescens).

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Buckbean isn’t a plant I see very often, and I think this was the first time I got to see its frilly white flowers.

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Part of my job was to make a map of the natural communities on the property, fitting all of the vegetation types I found into Maine’s natural community classification*. This wetland turned out to be a pretty good match for what they called the “Low Sedge – Buckbean Fen Lawn.” This is an uncommon community, and I never saw anything else like it in my three years of conducting inventories for MCHT, so when I returned at the end of August I made a point of revisiting the wetland to get a complete list of the plant species there. I even took a pinch of duckweed to key it out under my microscope back at home—if I hadn’t been paying special attention to this little wetland, I probably would have just scribbled down “Lemna sp.,” if I had even noticed the duckweed.

It turned out to be good old Lemna minor, the common duckweed. As I was examining the sample under magnification a few days later to make this determination, I was excited to discover that there were fly larvae feeding inside the tiny thalli (leaves, more or less). One is visible near the middle of this photo:

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A closer look:

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Other thalli contained puparia:

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Surprisingly, there are several different insects that feed inside duckweeds, the smallest vascular plants. One of them is a shore fly (Ephydridae) named Lemnaphila scotlandae, after Minnie B. Scotland, who discovered it in the course of studying insects associated with duckweed in Ithaca, NY, throughout the 1930s**. The only other miner Scotland studied was a weevil, Tanysphyrus lemnae, but two other shore flies have also been found mining duckweeds in North America: Hydrellia personata, another apparent duckweed specialist, and H. griseola, which mostly mines in grasses but sometimes turns up in other plants.

The puparia I found were about 1.75 to 2 mm long, much too large for Lemnaphila scotlandae (~1.3 mm) and much too small for Hydrellia griseola (over 2.5 mm). They were within the right range for H. personata, but that species had only been found from Iowa to the West Coast. So I kept an eye on my vial of duckweed to see what would emerge.

In this photo taken a few days later, you can see a fully-formed fly almost ready to pop out of its puparium:

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Between September 5 and October 2, nine of these little shore flies appeared:

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Here I encountered an all too familiar problem: the insects I had reared belonged to a group that no one in North America studies. I sent them off to Canada with a batch of agromyzid flies, and Owen Lonsdale kindly attempted to run them through the most recent key to North American shore flies (published in 1971), but he didn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. So he passed them along to Tadeusz (Tadek) Zatwarnicki in Poland, who identified them as Hydrellia albilabris, a species known from many European countries but never found elsewhere until now. Whether H. albilabris is a recent arrival in Maine or has been a Holarctic species all along is anybody’s guess; there just hasn’t been much attention paid to these little flies.

Our paper documenting this discovery was just published today***. Why this took five years is another story, and not one that’s necessarily worth telling. So many bugs, so little time!

* Gawler, Susan and Andrew Cutko. 2010. Natural Landscapes of Maine: A Guide to Natural Communities and Ecosystems. Maine Natural Areas Program, Augusta, Maine.

** Scotland, Minnie B. 1940. Review and summary of studies of insects associated with Lemna minor. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 48(4): 319–333.

*** Eiseman, Charles S. and Tadeusz Zatwarnicki. 2019. First Nearctic record of Hydrellia albilabris (Meigen) (Diptera: Ephydridae), a leafminer of duckweed (Araceae: Lemnoideae), with comments on related species. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 121(2): 160–167.

 

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Spring Beauty Visitors

Narrow-leaved spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a rare species where I live, listed as Endangered by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. So it was a treat to spend the past week in Ohio, where in some places it is difficult to take a step in the woods without stepping on one. On Monday, when it was too nice out to try to do anything productive, I decided to take a closer look at the spring beauties and see what bugs were attracted to them.

At first I wasn’t seeing anything, but when I slowed down and looked more closely, I saw that there were tiny (~1 mm) midges (Chironomidae: Orthocladiinae) all over them.

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However, although that last one happened to be climbing around on a stamen, I didn’t see any evidence that they were interested in pollen or nectar, and for all I know I would have seen just as many midges if I had focused on any other plant or object on the forest floor.

Similarly, these spiderlings probably didn’t care what kind of plant they were spinning their communal web on, although they may well have ended up ensnaring some insects that were attracted to the spring beauties.

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I’m glad I stopped to check them out, though, because they appear to be baby purseweb spiders (Atypidae). These are tarantula relatives that construct tubes of silk, which generally extend from their burrows in the ground up the bases of trees or other vegetation. The spider waits for an insect to crawl onto or land on the surface of the tube, then runs up, bites through the tube, and pulls its prey inside. Based on this paperSphodros niger is the only species occurring in (or anywhere near) Ohio. That species typically makes tubes that lie flat on the ground and are often entirely concealed by leaf litter, so it is by no means easy to find.

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The first insects I actually saw drinking nectar from the spring beauties were little 3-mm false honey ants (Prenolepis imparis).

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There were also a few much larger (~6.5 mm) ants, Formica subsericea.

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Finally, I started seeing some bees. Most were zipping around unpredictably and not staying on one flower long enough for me to even attempt to photograph them. The first to cooperate was this ~5-mm sweat bee (Halictidae: Lasioglossum (Dialictus)):

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Among the bees that eluded me was a bright, iridescent green sweat bee. And then, the stars of the show arrived: mining bees (Andrenidae: Andrena), fuzzy and coated with pollen. All of the insects pictured above looked awfully clean and presumably weren’t doing much in the way of pollination, but these mining bees were another story.

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I posted these photos to BugGuide.net, hoping John Ascher would confirm my assumption that these bees were Andrena erigeniae, a species that (despite being named for Erigenia bulbosa, harbinger of spring) is a specialist pollinator (oligolege) of spring beauties. Although it may visit other flowers for nectar, it only collects pollen of spring beauties when provisioning its nests. For reasons I don’t have time to investigate, Dr. Ascher identified the photos above only to the genus Andrena, but he identified the one below—the very last one I took on my spring beauty excursion—as A. erigeniae. It certainly is the one with its legs most impressively loaded with pollen.

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In just a few weeks, the spring beauties will all disappear into the ground until next spring, and Andrena erigeniae will along with it.

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A wasp has its day

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that a lot of my attempts to rear insect larvae to adults end up producing parasitoid wasps. You have probably also heard me lament from time to time how hard it is to get a specialist to examine these wasps and tell me what they arenot because no one is interested, but because there are so many wasps in the world, and so few people that study them, that those who do are perpetually overwhelmed and need to focus on whatever little slice of the unending diversity they’ve chosen to focus on at the moment if they’re ever going to get anything done. I guess that goes for pretty much all entomologists, actually.

So it was a happy day in May 2016 when Dave Wagner directed Scott Shaw and Eduardo Shimbori to me for specimens they might use in their revision of the New World braconid wasps of the tribe Adeliini. These wasps specialize in parasitizing the larvae of tiny leaf-mining moths in the family Nepticulidae. The wasp larva waits until its host has finished feeding and spun its cocoon before finally devouring it; some time later, the adult wasp chews its way out of the moth cocoon. Although there are a few records of these wasps from other hosts, they seem to all be bogus records resulting from nepticulid larvae wandering into the leaf mines of other insects before spinning their cocoons.

I sent Scott and Eduardo the few Adelius specimens I had in my possession, and José Fernández-Triana kindly located some others that I knew were among the heaps of braconids I had deposited in the Canadian National Collection, and he passed them along. When Eduardo sent me the newly published paper* yesterday, I learned that the latter specimens were the most interesting ones: they constituted the entire type series of a new species, Adelius floridensis Shimbori & Shaw.

I reared the wasps from leaf mines of Fomoria hypericella that Julia and I collected on two different species of St. Johnswort at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Florida back in March 2013. Here’s a larva of F. hypericella munching away in a leaf of roundpond St. Johnswort (Hypericum cistifolium):

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The finished mine of this species is more blotchy. Unlike virtually all other nepticulids, Fomoria hypericella spins its cocoon within the mine rather then popping out of the leaf and wandering for a bit before getting ready to pupate. The cocoon is visible in the lower right corner of the photo below (there is also a mine of another larva just getting started in the upper left corner):

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Before spinning its cocoon, the larva cuts a crescent-shaped exit slit in the leaf, just as larvae of other nepticulids do before exiting. This gives the pupa a place to pop out when the adult (which has no chewing mouthparts) is ready to emerge.

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The 2-mm adult moth may not have an exciting wing pattern, but you have to love the flashy orange pompom on its head.

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The wasp, Adelius floridensis, is a zippy little thing, just over 1.5 mm long (not counting the antennae), but I was able to get a few decent shots of one as it ran around:

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This female’s ovipositor is visible in the second photowell suited to poking through the leaf epidermis to insert its egg in a nepticulid larva.

There are now 19 described species of Adelius in the Americas (up from three), with just five of these known from the US and Canada. The other one I’ve met is A. coloradensis, which is widespread in the western US and seems to have an affinity for Stigmella species mining leaves of buckthorns (Rhamnaceae).

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This particular one was reared from an as yet unnamed species of Stigmella that mines leaves of cascara buckthorn (Frangula purshiana). Here are three of the moth cocoons, two with moth pupal exuviae poking out and one with an exit hole chewed by the wasp:

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Besides Adelius floridensis, the other newly described North American species is A. canadensis, which is known from just two specimens caught in fir-pine-aspen forest in Alberta in 1988. Adelius nigripectus is known from Indiana and Kansas and has been reared from an unidentified poplar leafminer. The final species, A. fasciipennis, was reared from Zimmermannia phleophaga in 1913. The moth was described at the same time and hasn’t been seen since. Its larvae mined in the inner bark of American chestnut and the species is believed to have gone extinct (perhaps along with its parasitoid) after the chestnut blight made larger chestnut trees scarce. It would be a tricky moth to find if it is still around though; there is no external evidence of the mine until the larva chews a tiny exit hole in the bark and drops to the ground. This was reported to happen between April and June, so if there are American chestnuts near you, it’s worth keeping an eye out, starting right about now!

* Shimbori, Eduardo M., Marco A. Bortoni, Scott R. Shaw, Carolina Da S. Souza-Gessner, Paula De C. M. Cerântola, and Angélica M. Penteado-Dias. 2019. Revision of the New World genera Adelius Haliday and Paradelius de Saeger (Hymenoptera: Braconidae: Cheloninae: Adeliini). Zootaxa 4571(2): 151–200.

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Origami Weevils

I always get excited when I encounter the work of leaf-rolling weevils (Attelabidae), even though they are by no means uncommon. I just find it fascinating that these insects have learned to fold leaves into neat little cylindrical packets for their larvae to live inside, without the use of silk or any other adhesive. The female starts by making two cuts in a leaf that meet at the midrib, as shown here:

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She then folds, rolls, and tucks the severed portion of the leaf, laying a single egg inside this packet, with the end result looking like this:

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The species shown above is Synolabus nigripes, which apparently feeds only on sumac (in this case winged sumac, Rhus copallinum). I’ve only encountered it once or twice; what I usually see are rolls on oak (or occasionally chestnut) made by Attelabus bipustulatus (shown here) or perhaps other species.

Last August when I was teaching my Tracks & Sign of Insects… workshop at the Eagle Hill Institute in Maine, we came across some weevil leaf rolls on speckled alder (Alnus incana), which was a first for me.

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We took a couple of them back to the lab to examine, and one of the participants unraveled one to reveal the egg inside:

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I kept the other one in a vial to see if an adult would eventually emerge. Eight months later—yesterday—it did!

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I opened the roll up to see what had been going on in there all this time, and not surprisingly, beneath the outer layer of leaf, everything inside had been converted to weevil poop.

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It wasn’t just a disorganized wad of poop though. When it had had its fill of the leaf tissue, the larva had packed all of its frass against the remaining outer leaf layer, creating a smooth-walled, roomy cell in which to pupate.

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At one end of the cell, there were a few differently textured, yellowish fecal pellets, which I assume were meconium deposited by the newly emerged adult weevil.

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Naturally, before taking the above photos I finished my portrait session with the weevil.

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It turns out this is a species (Himatolabus pubescens) that I had met once before, six years earlier and 3000 miles away, nibbling on an oak leaf at Madera Canyon. According to Art Evans’ Beetles of Eastern North America, adults of this species have been found on hazelnut (Corylus) and rosemallow (Hibiscus) as well as alder and oak.

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Some more new flies

Nope, attention-grabbing titles just aren’t my forte.

Anyway, you may recall that last fall Owen Lonsdale and I published a paper describing 30 new species of agromyzid flies, two of which I found right along my driveway, and the rest of which I summarized here. That paper also gave new information on nearly 100 other species that already had names, gleaned from my first five years of rearing leaf-mining insects. During those five years, several other people around the US got inspired to start collecting leafminers too, and ended up contributing a number of specimens that were used in that paper. The #1 contributor was Tracy Feldman of North Carolina, and in recognition of his efforts, I set aside all of his rearing records of species that I hadn’t reared myself in other states (with the exception of Cerodontha feldmani) to be included in a separate paper dedicated to North Carolina Agromyzidae. That paper has just been published*, and in it Owen, Tracy, and I describe another nine new species.

One of these was a species Tracy first found in the spring of 2015 on a plant I’d never heard of, Carphephorus bellidifolius (Asteraceae), which apparently has the common name of “sandywoods chaffhead.” The leaf mines were partially on the upper surface…

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…but the larvae often did most of their feeding on the lower surface, switching sides when they were almost mature. This is the underside of the same leaf that is shown above:

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Naturally, all the mines Tracy collected that year turned out to be parasitized by eulophid wasps, so all we got were these:

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He tried again the following May, with the same result. But then in late June, he found some more larvae, and these survived to form puparia…

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…and emerged as adult flies within a few weeks:

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When Owen examined the specimens, he informed us that this was a new species, so we named it Liriomyza carphephori—I always like to name species after their host plants if that name isn’t already taken.

Tracy and I were both surprised when Owen told us that the fly Tracy found mining leaves of Spanish needles (Bidens bipinnata) was the same species. Not only was the plant not very closely related (belonging to a different tribe of the aster family), but the mine seemed very different: on Bidens it was entirely on the upper surface and always started at the tip of the leaf, where it made a very contorted track before eventually meandering elsewhere in the blade.

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I had collected similar mines in Vermont and in my front yard in Massachusetts on Bidens frondosa (“devil’s beggar-ticks”) in October 2016. The larvae were mining in leaves that had already turned completely red.

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The adults that emerged the following spring proved to be the same species, so L. carphephori ended up being the one species in the North Carolina paper with paratypes from other states. The paratypes also included some older specimens of mine that we had mentioned in the first paper but hadn’t been able to put a name on yet because I had only reared females. One of these females had been reared from Bidens frondosa back in July 2014, and we discussed it as “Liriomyza sp. 3.” Two others had been discussed as “Liriomyza sp. 5,” and they were reared from Mikania scandens (climbing hempvine).

Mikania scandens, as it happens, is in the same tribe as Carphephorus (Eupatorieae) but has pointed leaves like Bidens. Interestingly enough, on Mikania some of the mines look like the ones on Bidens

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…and some are like the ones on Carphephorus: switching between the two leaf surfaces and not crammed into the tip of the leaf.

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When I found these mines while doing botanical fieldwork back in August 2013, I was standing knee-deep in water. Some of them were already empty, and the larvae had glued their puparia to the undersides of the leavesa useful adaptation to this habitat since they probably would have drowned if they had dropped from the leaves as Liriomyza larvae normally do.

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Incidentally, one of those two females from Mikania emerged within a few weeks and the other not until the following spring. It’s always hard to know when to give up and throw away old puparia, and every once in a while I’m rewarded for hanging onto them until the next year.

One final note on Liriomyza carphephori: I’ve found similar leaf mines in Ohio on white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), another member of the tribe Eupatorieae, and I predict these larvae will turn out to be the same species.

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* Eiseman, Charles S., Owen Lonsdale, and Tracy S. Feldman. 2019. Nine new species of Agromyzidae from North Carolina, USA, with new host and distribution records for additional species. Zootaxa 4571(3): 301–333.

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Parasite of a parasite of a parasite

I’m slowly making my way through the photos I took last summer, and I just got to the conclusion of an interesting series that started with this leaf I was given on June 22:

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The leaf is from hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hirsuta), a species that is listed as Endangered here in Massachusetts. I was given the leaf by a botanist at the state’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program with the hope that I could determine what the leafminer was. No leafminer has been reared from this particular honeysuckle species, but based on what miners are known from other honeysuckles, I can say that the larva was a fly in the genus Aulagromyza (Agromyzidae). My best guess is that it is none of the six described Aulagromyza species that are known to feed on honeysuckle in North America. Long, linear, greenish mines have been reported from a similar plant, limber honeysuckle (L. dioica), in Ontario, and these were tentatively associated with an undescribed Aulagromyza species that is known from a single female reared from “Lonicera columbiana” (a plant that doesn’t exist) in Montana. So I’m thinking it’s either that or… something else.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is, a healthy mature Aulagromyza larva would pop out of its leaf and form a puparium like this…

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…from which an adult fly would emerge:

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(This fly is Aulagromyza luteoscutellata, which makes much shorter, wider mines that are common on introduced Asian bush honeysuckles.)

But if you look at the leaf mine photo above, you’ll see that there are a couple of objects toward the end of the mine. Here’s a backlit detail of the relevant portion:

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The object at right is the remains of the fly larva, which was devoured by a parasitoid braconid wasp in the genus Colastes (or a related genus in the subfamily Exothecinae). We know this because the object at left is the wasp’s cocoon.

Normally, the braconid larva would pupate within the cocoon and then the adult would chew a hole at one end and emerge:

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On July 5, an adult wasp did chew its way out of the cocoon in the hairy honeysuckle leaf…

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…but it was a eulophid wasp, which as a larva had devoured the braconid larva within its cocoon.

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I probably rear a lot more hyperparasitoids than I realize, so it’s always nice to see a clear case like this.

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