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Seeing a strange insect in the yard

A pelecinid wasp rests on a late summer day. Note the very long ovipositor for laying eggs in soil. She folds it when not in use. (Photo by Larry Weber)

The morning dew is blended with patches of fog as I walk out to the field. Sixty degrees, as it is this morning, is not the best for what I seek; I prefer a bit cooler. But as I wander here, my meander becomes the web walk that I was hoping for. Out here in the grasses, goldenrods, asters and milkweeds, all draped with dew drops, are myriads of these circular orb webs. I find that though there are hundreds of these snares present, they are made by only a few kinds of spiders. Some of these web makers remain in the center of the webs despite being damp; others hide in shelters along the edge of the webs. Now, and during the next couple of weeks, is the best time of year to observe these webs. Like other Northland nature, they have been growing all summer and now reach maturity.

This late August maturation can also be seen in the gardens, apple trees, blackberries, choke cherries and seeds of other plants, like the thistles, that flowered in July. As I return from the field, I pause at blackberries plants for a snack. I also stop to watch a warbler wave. This group of birds, grown families from the summer, travel through the trees with others, both same species and different. I note five kinds here. But they are also accompanied with non-migrant black-capped chickadees.

During an evening a few days ago, I noticed a flock of active flying and feeding birds. About 10 inches long, these nighthawks gathered to feed as they were heading south. I estimated about 50 in this group. These adult birds, products of the recent warm season, again showed the maturation of this time. I also saw it this week in a flock of Canada geese passing over and two young loons, now as large as their parents.

By late August, the breeding and raising season has mostly passed and this can be seen in many places. We now see miniature frogs in yards and gardens, maybe even on our house. They are grown from the eggs that were deposited among their amorous calls in May. Also in the woods, the fast-growing mushrooms emerge with a new one each day.

But it is the insects that own late August. After growing throughout the hot days, these six-legged critters have formed wings (always a sign of mature insects) and are courting, mating and breeding. I see an abundance of their activity in the goldenrods which are also now with mature blossoms. Among the yellow flowers on the tall leafy stems, I easily find plenty of flies, moths, butterflies (including migrant monarchs), grasshoppers, locusts and their cousins, the vocal green katydids, as they scratch out a tune. Crickets make sounds from the ground in the evening while the cicadas buzz from the trees in the heat of the day. Dragonflies and damselflies bask and hunt here as well. Nearly all the insects at this time are adults. It's hard to find immatures.

Perhaps the most obvious of the present insects are the bees, wasps and hornets. Most are large and colorful and their wings hum as the move among the goldenrod blossoms and other field plants. Bees and wasps can be the products of colonies or solitary growth, but mostly what I see here are the social ones.

And then I see a different kind of visitor. Sometimes we search for critters and sometimes they just appear in front of us. Such was the case when a few days ago, I was walking across a yard and right there in front of me flew a dark and very long insect. With an extended long abdomen up to 2 inches long and wings that looked to be too short to carry it in its flight, it appeared a bit surreal. But they are a regular, though never common, part of the insect fauna of late summer. I recognized this as a wasp, the Pelecinid. (Unfortunately, I am not aware of a more common name.)

The wasp with a long abdomen, looking like a giant stinger, actually does not sting. This long tube that she carries is an ovipositor that is used for egg-laying. It needs to be long in order to place it into soil or rotted wood to lay its eggs. And she is selective. Eggs are not just scattered in the soil but she seeks the larvae of ground beetles. As a parasite, the young feed on this subsoil insect. Pelecinids are often called Ichneumons, another parasitic solitary wasp, but they are actually classified to be in a group of their own. After laying an egg, she then flies to another site to find another host. I saw her in the lawn since this is where she is able to get into the soil. As she flies, she usually extends the large tail, but when resting, this caudal appendage is folded beneath the body. It seems like every year at this time, I'll see a Pelecinid wasp out seeking a site to place her eggs and the beetle larva below the soil, another sign of the maturation of late August.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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