A Curious Flower

Today I break my four-month silence to bring you this:

Yesterday morning while we were eating breakfast on the back deck, Julia exclaimed something like “The poop beetles are eating the groundcherry!” This wasn’t news to me; a week or so ago I had noticed the tiny larvae, with poop piled on their backs, on a leaf of one of the potted groundcherry plants we had overwintered indoors with the hope of actually getting some fruit out of them this year. But when I looked over at the plant now, I saw the reason for her alarm: the top of the plant had been reduced to a “Y” of two blunt, naked branches, and when I went over to inspect, I saw that each fork of the Y was topped with a “flower” of larvae that were working together to munch the branch down to nothing. I thought their symmetrical arrangement produced an image that, while somewhat stomach-churning—especially in the middle of breakfast—was also oddly compelling. So of course I ran to get my camera. And then I gathered up all the larvae and threw them to the chickens, even though I knew they would react exactly as they did: come running up excitedly to see the latest offering, then stop suddenly a foot or two away, cock their heads quizzically, and walk away.

If you’re not familiar with these larvae, here’s a side view of the same scene to give you a better sense of what we’re looking at:

They are larvae of the three-lined potato beetle (Chrysomelidae: Lema daturaphila, or another similar Lema species). And being the good botanists that they are, they know that groundcherries (Solanaceae: Physalis) have nothing to do with cherries (Rosaceae: Prunus), but belong to the nightshade family, along with potato, tomato, eggplant, and goji.

Here’s an adult found on our deck railing last June—when I don’t think we had any nightshades there to speak of:

And another on one of our goji bushes seven years ago, being inspected by a group of Lasius ants.

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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10 Responses to A Curious Flower

  1. Priscilla says:

    Unfortunately I viewed this while eating my breakfast also! But yes, fascinating, thank you.

  2. Lucysgolden says:

    How interesting! Last year I grew two varieties of ground cherries, a favorite of ours. One of them (I forget the name but the package said 80 + days) produced prolifically despite the fact that the garden suffers from neglect when I’m busy. The other one (115 days) never produced. I wonder if yours are the latter. My seeds for both came from Fedco. Needless to say, this year we are just growing the shorter season ones.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Yes, we have a few varieties, one of which produces plenty and self-seeds. This was a late-fruiting variety we had tried the year before (also from Fedco; I don’t remember the name either). We put them in pots last year in anticipation of them needing some extra time to make fruit. They actually are starting to make fruit now, and there are even a couple of fruits on this poor plant.

  3. makerkate says:

    Worth the wait 🙂

  4. Wendy Larson says:

    Wow, Charlie, that first picture is a doozy! I think you should title it “Strange Fruit”. That’s a beautiful beetle, coming from such an ugly duckling larva, and I hope not to see it in my garden…..

  5. dvaunhowe says:

    I suppose the explanation for poop-hauling behavior is defense from predation. Is that a common behavior among grubs? Has there been any study or pondering about the ecological effects of this movement of carbon and nitrogen? Is evolution awesome, or what!? Glad to see you are back at the blogging, Charley.

    • My chickens’ response seems to indicate that it’s an effective defense, although they may be sensing chemical cues that aren’t apparent to humans (they react the same way to sawfly larvae, as well as to adults of these particular beetles if I remember correctly, neither of which carry poop on their backs). There are several subfamilies of leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae) that carry poop in different creative ways (this being the least elegant among them), as well as some other insects–I go into detail about this in my Tracks & Sign of Insects book.

  6. Betsy Bizarro says:

    Very cool, not too disgusting…adults are attractive. Thanks for the share!

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