Natural Perspectives: How not to be eaten

Since taking up the hobby of mothing — photographing moths and other insects that are attracted to a black light at night — I've become more aware of daytime insects in our yard. Now that I'm looking for them, I'm seeing them everywhere.

One of the more spectacular species that I recently found in my yard was the milkweed bug. I confess that I had no idea what they were. I saw these black and orange beetle-like things crawling all over my bloodflower milkweeds in our butterfly garden. I had planted the milkweeds to attract monarch butterflies, and they've been doing a good job of that. I didn't know if I should try to get rid of those orange and black intruders or not. So I asked Vic, the resident biology instructor in the house.

Vic didn't recognize them either, so he sought an outside opinion. He took them to Larry Shaw of Orange County Vector Control District, who didn't even need to look at them. When he heard "big orange and black bugs on milkweed," he knew immediately that they were milkweed bugs. To humor Vic, Larry peered at the two bugs in a jar that Vic had brought to him. Yep, milkweed bugs.

Turns out that unless you're a milkweed plant, they are pretty harmless. These bugs eat only milkweed seeds. By doing so, they ingest a toxin that milkweeds produce. They are immune to the toxin, but it makes them taste nasty to any bird that tries to eat them. A bird only needs to eat one of them to avoid the rest of them for life.

Milkweed bugs aren't the only insects that eat milkweed for self-protection. Vic says that everyone knows that Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars taste bad as well because of these toxins. I asked him if he would be willing to taste one to see how bad it really tastes. Husbands can give you the funniest looks sometimes.

The bright coloration of milkweed bugs and Monarch butterflies is a clue to birds not to eat those critters. Other insect species mimic this coloration to capitalize on that learned avoidance by birds. All an insect has to do is look like one that tastes bad, and it won't get eaten.

Once I started looking for insects in the yard, I found plenty. A huge, bright green katydid flew to the stucco of our house and perched there like it was posing for pictures. I didn't know if it would stick around long enough for me to grab my camera, but surprisingly, it did. It had probably already filled its belly with some tasty vegetation from my garden. Or maybe it was a species of katydid that feeds on snails. Some do, I found out. Not knowing whether it ate plants or snails, I didn't squash it.

This insect had a short abdomen in relation to its wings, huge hind legs, and antennae that were longer than the body. These are some of the characteristics of katydids. They are in the insect order Orthoptera, which includes grasshoppers and crickets. Katydids are in their own family in this taxonomic order.

Narrowing down my find to genus and species was out of my league, though, since there are 243 different katydid species in the U.S. Maybe if this one had sung I could have figured out which one it was. Katydids are known for their loud songs.

While I was watching the katydid, I noticed a couple of paper wasp nests under the eaves. We have a lot of paper wasps in our garden. These guys (and gals) are carnivorous, and I appreciate their efforts at keeping the pest insects under control.

I was asked recently if wasps are dangerous. Guess it depends on whether or not you're allergic to the venom in wasp and bee stings. Unlike bees, which can only sting once, wasps can sting multiple times. But unlike hornets and yellow jackets, wasps are pretty peaceful. They tend to attack only if their nest is disturbed during the day. Since they build their nests up really high, often under the eaves, they don't bother me. So I don't bother them. We coexist peacefully.

Yellow jackets are another story. They build their nests in the ground, not up high. If you step on their nest, or even get close to it, you can be in for trouble. They have been known to pursue what they consider an intruder, stinging the hapless person multiple times.

Yellow jackets will also defend anything that they consider their food source. Yellow jackets like both meat and sugar, and can be real pests at a picnic or outdoor restaurant. These are the pesky things that swarm on your fried chicken or take bites from your hamburger. They will even go down into soda cans in pursuit of something sweet. If you drink from a can with a yellow jacket in it, you're likely to get stung on the lip. Because of these bad habits, I have no tolerance for yellow jackets.

It's good to know which insects are beneficial, which ones are neutral, and which ones to combat. When in doubt, I let it live.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at Lmurrayphd@aol.com.

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