Week 8, Day 5: Bees

A bumble bee visits a thistle flower. Notice the pollen coating the hairs on its legs! (Photo by Craig Martin)

It’s the last day of week eight of Take It Outside! Thanks for joining us to take a closer look at our local insects. We hope you learned something new about some of the smallest critters around us. Join us next week to explore climate.

Today we are learning about some important pollinators: bees!

Upcoming Event:

Tune in to tonight’s live-streamed astronomy talk to learn about light pollution and protecting our state’s dark skies. This talk will begin at 7 PM and is free to watch, but registration is required. Learn more and sign up here.

Blog Post:

Larry Deaven, the mastermind behind the nature center’s amazing penstemon garden, looks at how these flowers have evolved for different types of pollinators. Read his post here.

Craft:

Flowers and bees have evolved to depend on one another. Explore this incredible relationship by dissecting a flower. 

Take each part of the flower apart and identify where the pollen and nectar are held, as well and where new seeds are made. What tongue structure must a bee have to collect nectar from the flower you dissected? Take a guess, and then learn more about a bee’s tongue in this article.

Find more instructions, as well as printable worksheets and flower anatomy guides, here.

 

Native plants often have very specific pollinators. This palafoxia flower is being visited by a small fly with a long, sucking proboscis. That allows the fly to probe for nectar deep inside the long tube-shaped disk flowers of the flower head, picking up pollen on the protruding anthers as it does so. (Photo by Craig Martin)

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Find some flowers outdoors in your yard or on the trail, and watch them for a while! What pollinators come to visit? Look closely: are there any small insects on the flowers that you didn’t see at first? Some pollinators you might see:

  • Bees
  • Butterflies
  • Hummingbirds
  • Flies
  • Moths (tip: check open flowers at night!)
  • Ants
  • Beetles
  • Spiders
  • Other insects

 

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

When we think about bees, honey bees often come to mind. Honey bees are actually a semi-domesticated, introduced species that was brought to the U.S. by European settlers for honey production. 

Did you know that there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S. and Canada? One quarter of them are estimated to live in New Mexico! Many of these bees are solitary species and nest alone or in small groups, unlike the large colonies of honey bees. Check out this pocket guide to New Mexico’s native bees from the New Mexico State University Extension Office to learn about some of the native bees in our state. You can also learn about a few local bees on PEEC’s Nature Guide.

Then, head outside and look for bees! How many types of bees do you see? Can you find a honey bee? How about some native bees? Fill out the form below and let us know what you find!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

What bugs can you find this week?! Tell us in the form below! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us next week to explore our climate!

Week 8, Day 4: Ladybugs & Beneficial Insects

Ladybugs in southern New Mexico. Ladybugs eat insects like aphids and are beneficial to have in your yard or garden. (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Explore the life cycle of ladybugs in today’s Take It Outside post!

Most people can recognize an adult ladybug. But do you know what a ladybug larva looks like? Or that ladybugs eat aphids, and are most helpful to gardeners during their larval stage?

Learn all about ladybugs and other beneficial insects in today’s post!

Upcoming Event:

Join PEEC staff member Ashleigh Lusher today at 11 AM for our new weekly Critter Chronicles series. Ashleigh will introduce our tiger salamanders, Tam and Titus, via YouTube livestream and answer questions that come in through the live chat! This program will last for about 15 minutes. Tune in here.

Blog Post:

Fifth graders Aislinn Marshall and Liv Niklasson investigate the life cycle of their favorite insect, the ladybug, today on the blog. Read their post here.

Activity:

Every gardener is happy to see ladybugs making a home in their garden. Ladybugs help control other insect pests, including aphids, that eat plants. Play this fun ladybugs and aphids game, inspired by Red Light, Green Light, and then go out to your yard to search for ladybugs!

 

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Look for ladybugs! Ladybugs eat aphids, and aphids eat tender green plant growth. So look around your garden or favorite outdoor space for plants that have tiny green or black aphids on their leaves or buds. You might spot ladybugs nearby.

While you’re looking closely at plants, see if you can spot other insects! Here are some tips:

  • Adult insects often have wings.
  • Eggs are tiny and often hard to see, but look carefully at the backs of leaves for eggs. They come in many shapes and colors, and may be laid singly or in clumps.
  • Larvae range in size from very small to quite large, they might look like a caterpillar or more like an adult, don’t have wings, and crawl around, eating lots of plant parts or other insects.
  • Pupae, a stage between larvae and adults for some insects, often hang from the underside of plants or logs, or lie buried in the ground.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Black and yellow mud dauber wasps are beneficial insects that help keep spider populations under control. (Photo by Craig Martin)

Create a habitat for beneficial insects in your yard or garden. Beneficial insects will eat and help control pests like aphids, hornworms, and squash bugs. Just like all other critters, beneficial insects need access to food, water, and shelter. Beneficial insects found in New Mexico include ladybugs, lacewings, soft-winged flower beetles, bees and wasps, and more!

Walk around your yard and see what you already provide for our insects and what you could add. Are there adjustments you can make for your yard to be more insect-friendly? Here are four things to think about:

  • Food: Beneficial insects will prey on other bugs in your yard, but many also require nectar and pollen when insects are scarce. Buckwheat, dill, and garden cosmos are all good things to plant to attract beneficial insects.
  • Water: Provide a shallow dish of clean water in your yard so insects can stop by for a drink. Put pebbles inside and fill the dish until they are partially covered. The pebbles will provide a landing spot for wasps and other visitors!
  • Shelter: Beneficial insects will overwinter in the top layers of soil, in plant litter, or under the bark of trees. Leaving some dead plant matter on the ground in your yard can help provide a home for insects. Perennial clovers and native grasses can also help provide habitat for insects.
  • Limit Insecticides: While insecticides can be effective in controlling garden pests, they are also harmful to the beneficial insects that we want to attract! Insecticides are also a temporary solution. Focus on improving your soil health, attracting beneficial insects to your yard, and planting native plants to create a more diverse and healthy ecosystem! This will naturally help control the pests in your yard.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

What bugs can you find this week?! Tell us in the form below! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about pollinators and our penstemon gardens!

The Life Cycle of the Ladybug

Ladybugs are easy to recognize insects that have a fascinating life cycle! (Photo by Beth Cortright)

By Aislinn Marshall and Liv Niklasson

You may know ladybugs for their pretty colors, but there is much more to them than meets the eye. They are vicious predators, able to eat thousands of aphids in their lifetime. They also go through a life cycle that is at least as interesting as a butterfly’s.

Ladybug larva on a chrysanthemum at the nature center. (Photo by Liv Niklasson)

There are about 5,000 species of ladybugs all around the world. They can survive in practically any climate, and can live for up to 9 months without food! The most common species of ladybug in North America is the convergent ladybug (Hippodamia convergens). They live for about a year. 

The first stage of a ladybug’s life cycle is the same as most bugs: eggs. Ladybug eggs are bright yellow. The females lay eggs in bunches of about 5 – 50, on the undersides of leaves to protect them from flying predators and the weather. They lay eggs many times per season; a female lays about 1,000 eggs in her lifetime. Both fertile and infertile eggs are included in a bunch, so that when the fertile ones hatch, the larvae can eat the infertile eggs. The time it takes for them to hatch can range from 2 – 10 days, depending on the temperature. 

The next stage of the ladybug life cycle is the larval stage. The larvae eat a lot, and their diet includes scale insects, aphids, adelgids, and insect eggs. They are black with yellow spots, and molt four times before pupating. The larval stage lasts for about a month, and when they are ready to pupate, they attach themselves to the undersides of leaves.

The third stage in a ladybug’s life is the pupa. The shell is orange with black spots, and is roughly the same shape as an armadillo shell. While it might seem boring on the outside, the things happening inside the shell are probably the most interesting parts of a ladybug’s life. In the pupa, the larva is broken down completely before the adult forms. The change is controlled by cells called histoblasts, kind of like the hormones that give boys deeper voices or girls wider hips. This entire process takes from 1 – 2 weeks.

A spotless ladybird beetle (Cycloneda sanguinea) on a rose plant. (Photo by Liv Niklasson)

The final stage of a ladybug’s life is an adult. When they come out of their pupae, their shells are a pale gray-green color and their exoskeletons are soft. This makes them vulnerable to predators until it hardens. They eat the same food as the larvae, so they usually live on aphid-infested plants. They can produce a bad-smelling and tasting liquid from their joints to make themselves undesirable meals to birds, skunks, and other hungry predators.

They fly when temperatures exceed 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and when spreading or closing their wings, they fold them like origami so that they fit under their shells. Ladybugs spend the winter in hibernation. They sleep in large groups in cracks and crevices, such as in the bark of a tree, and mate as soon as they wake up. 

Someday in the spring or early summer, go outside and try to find ladybugs in all stages of their life. Look for a plant infested with aphids, or other similar bugs. Look under the leaves for eggs and pupae. Look in the clumps of aphids for larvae and adults. You will usually find ladybugs in all four stages of their life on one plant, or at least in the same area. In the winter, go out and look in fallen logs, tree bark, or any other cracks for hibernating adults.

Watch this fascinating video to see the whole life cycle of a ladybug unfold!

Week 8, Day 3: Ants

The entrance to a harvester ant mound in Northern New Mexico. (Photo by Mike Lewinski)

This week on Take It Outside, we are learning about some of the smallest inhabitants of Northern New Mexico — bugs!

Today, we are learning about ants! You should be able to find ants in your backyard or along a nearby trail. Spend some time observing these fascinating insects today, but be sure not to get too close — some of them have painful bites.

Blog Post:

PEEC volunteer, board member, and biologist Jennifer Macke explores the fascinating social structures of ants. Learn how ants communicate, work together as a colony, and more in today’s blog post.

Craft & Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

These ants came upon a cicada head in Northern New Mexico. Do you think they were strong enough to take it back to their nest? (Photo by Mike Lewinski)

Ants are omnivores and can lift up 10 – 50 times their own body weight! You may have seen them trying to carry heavy loads of food back to their colony. 

Experiment with feeding ants by watching them devour different food sources. In the wild, ants eat a variety of food, including plant nectar, dead insects and other animals, and fruits and seeds. See one example of feeding ants honey here.

What else can you offer ants? What do they like most? Try following the ants’ path to see where they are going! Can you find any ants that are gathering food from a natural source?

 

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

We have several different species of ants on the Pajarito Plateau. Try to find at least two different kinds of ants, and compare and contrast them!

  • What do their anthills look like?
  • What are they bringing home to eat?
  • Are all the ants the same size and shape, or do you notice differences among individuals?
  • Can you see them communicating with each other?
  • What can you notice about their paths?

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

What bugs can you find this week?! Tell us in the form below! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore more about insects!

Awesome Ants

Ants often form a single line of workers walking between the nest and a source of food. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

By Jennifer Macke

Ants are fascinating! If we put aside for a moment our thoughts about ants in the kitchen, or ants in our pants, we can look at them as an indispensable part of every ecosystem, and as animals with an amazing social structure.

Ants are sometimes described as “ecosystem engineers”. Their roles in the environment include cleaning up microscopic food scraps, aerating the soil, putting fertilizer into the ground, and dispersing plant seeds. They often eat spiders, ticks, termites, and other insects, helping to control populations of pests.

No Social Distancing for Ants

Ants are considered “eusocial” animals, meaning that they have an advanced level of social organization. In eusocial species, a single female (or a few females) produces offspring, and non-reproductive individuals cooperate in caring for the young. 

An ant colony may contain anywhere from a dozen individual ants, to many thousands. All live in a single home, usually underground. Living in such close quarters, they certainly cannot ever practice social distancing!

Communication is essential to social animals. Ants often communicate with each other by touch. This often consists of touching each other’s antennae. A particular type of touch or stroke serves to communicate information between two ants. Ants stay clean by grooming each other.

Observation Tip: Look for ants communicating by touching their antennae together.

Ants also communicate by pheromones, which are chemical signals that they emit. When ants find a food source, they lay down a trail of pheromones to lead the other ants to the food. Each ant colony has its own unique set of scents, which serve as a way of recognizing members of one’s own family.

Amazingly, ants also communicate by sound. Their sounds are too quiet for us to hear, but they are a very important method of communicating, just as speaking is to us. They produce the sounds by rubbing their legs against their body or other legs, producing washboard-like sounds.

Social Castes

A new queen ant with her first group of tiny workers (nanitics). (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

An ant colony contains ants of several types of ants, called castes, that differ in size, shape, and behavior. The most obvious (and largest) is the queen. An ant colony usually has a single queen, but some species can have multiple queens in one colony. Queen ants are quite remarkable. They usually mate only once in their life, but produce fertile eggs for their entire lifespan. A queen ant typically lives 5 to 10 years, but some live up to 20 years. As the name implies, the queen is the undisputed leader of the team.

Drones are male ants whose only purpose is to mate with a new queen. Drones are short-lived, and only exist during the brief time of the year when the colony produces winged reproductive ants.

Worker ants are female, but they do not reproduce. The workers carry out all the work of the colony, including gathering food, building the nest, tending the offspring, and defending their territory. In some species, there are several different sizes of specialized worker ants. In other species, the workers are identical, but the same worker will assume different jobs over the course of her life, usually becoming a “soldier” that defends the colony toward the end of her lifespan.

Observation Tip: See if you can observe worker ants going in and out of an anthill. Are they all the same size?

Ant Life Cycle

A winged ant emerging from a colony of Harvester Ants. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

Ants have an interesting life cycle, based on their social organization. At a specific time of year, the colony produces male and female winged reproductive ants, called “alates.” Depending on the species, these winged ants appear sometime in spring or summer. All colonies of a particular species release their winged ants at the same time, often triggered by recent rain and other favorable weather conditions. In addition, each species has its own “internal clock” to know when it’s the right time of year to release winged ants in synchrony with other colonies of their species.

The winged ants fly and mate in mid-air. After mating, the females return to the ground, shed their wings, and walk around until they find a good place to build a new colony. When they find a good place, they usually dig themselves an underground cavity to live in. There, they lay their first eggs, and a new colony is born.

Observation Tip: If you learn to recognize queen ants, it’s easy to find them during late spring and early summer. They spend a long time walking around looking for a place to build their first nest.

The first worker ants produced by a new queen ant are called “nanitics.” They are ordinary workers, but miniature in size. Once a new queen has hatched her first nanitics, she never has to work again. From that point on, the workers take care of her, gathering her food and raising future generations of workers.

Many Ants, or One Superorganism?

The ant exhibit at the Los Alamos Nature Center contains a colony of a common black yard ant, Formica podzolica. In summer, you can see piles of ant eggs and larvae in the underground tunnels. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

As humans, we see ourselves as individuals, so it is sometimes difficult for us to grasp what life is like for colonial insects. Some people refer to a colony of insects as a “superorganism” — a single collective organism, with individuals performing the functions that we associate with the body parts of larger animals.

We can think of each individual ant as we think of the cells or body parts in our bodies, each one being a tiny piece of the whole. When we see a line of ants marching to a food source, we can think of this as being like our arm, as we reach out toward our food. The ants that defend the nest are analogous to our skin and immune system, which shield us from the outside world. And the queen ant is clearly the brains of the operation!

 

Ant Watching

Ants are fascinating to watch. When you go outside this season, see if you can observe two ants meeting and greeting each other. Do they touch their antennae together? Do they behave differently when they are near their colony or farther away? What happens when two ants of different species encounter each other?

Observation Tip: If you are really lucky, you might observe winged ants emerging from a colony, or find a young queen ant as she roams around looking for a place to make her new home.

 

Please feel free to report the results of your observations in the comment section below, or join the PEEC Naturalists email interest group. Some of our local species are shown in detail in our Insect Guide.

Week 8, Day 2: Aquatic Macroinvertebrates

Campers on our Living Earth Adventure Program summer camp in 2018 searched for macroinvertebrates near Taos, NM.

This week in Take It Outside, we are learning about some of the insects and other creepy crawlies of Northern New Mexico!

Today, explore the rich communities of aquatic critters that live in lakes, streams, and puddles of our region, and what they can tell us about the health of our aquatic ecosystems.

Upcoming Events & PEEC News:

Learn how to become a better recycler at tonight’s live-streamed talk from Los Alamos County Environmental Services Manager Angelica Gurule. This event will start at 7 p.m. and it is free to watch, but attendees must register in advance. We have much more coming up this week, too! Visit our events page to learn about our upcoming critter livestream, astronomy talk, yoga class, and more!

Plus, you can vote now for the winner of April’s photo contest! You can vote by filling out this form. We’ll announce the winner on social media in the next few days. If you’d like to learn about our photo contest and how to participate in the future, visit our photo contest webpage. The deadline to submit entries for May’s migratory birds contest has been extended to May 15.

Blog Post:

Aquatic Ecologist Rossana Sallenave, from New Mexico State University’s Extension Office, shares the joys of searching for aquatic macroinvertebrates, and how they are used to determine the health of a water body. Read her blog post here.

Craft:

Make a bug collector box out of a recycled juice bottle and a little bit of mesh or loosely-woven cloth. Find instructions here. Create a habitat for bugs and watch them crawl around! Insects will always do best in their natural habitat, so when you’re finished watching them, return them to the wild.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Find a stream or other body of water, and look for aquatic macroinvertebrates! One of the best ways to find them is to pick up rocks, hold them upside down, and look for anything that wiggles. Bring a light-colored tub or container, fill it halfway with water, and carefully transfer your critters to the container to see them better. Make sure to return them to the stream when you’re finished!

Try to identify some of your finds using this easy-to-use key.

Every year, Los Alamos High School students join PEEC for a trip to Hidden Valley in the Valles Caldera to catch macroinvertebrates in the East Fork of the Jemez River! (Photo by Beth Cortright)

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Did you know you can use binoculars backwards to make a rudimentary field microscope? Bring the insect very close to the lens and you can see it up close.

Examine an aquatic (or other) insect and use your field microscope or a magnifying glass to identify some of its parts. See the general diagram on this page.

  • Head
  • Thorax
  • Abdomen
  • Legs (six for insects)
  • Eyes
  • Mouthparts
  • Antennae
  • Gills
  • Tail

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

What bugs can you find this week?! Tell us in the form below! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about the social lives of ants!