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The Wasp Moth

Here is an interesting creäture. At first glance it looks like a large, dangerous wasp. It is not. It is an oleander moth, also called the polka-dot wasp moth. Resembling a wasp is a survival mechanism. Birds seeking insects to eat will avoid the it like the plague. While most moths are active at night this species is active by day when it travels from blossom to blossom sucking nectar from each flower’s nectary.

This moth is known as a Caribbean insect, but is found as far north as Florida. It can be a bit of a pest devastating oleander trees. There are other species of moths that mimic wasps throughout the world.

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Sleeping Bee

I came across a wild aster this morning and found a bumblebee clinging to one of the small flowers, motionless as if frozen in time. Was it dead? Was it sleeping?

Did you know that bumblebees sleep in flowers? If the bee does not find its way back to its nest before the cool evening sets in, it will seek flowers to sleep in. This one may not have been able to find a large flower to rest in, leaving it exposed to a chilly night clinging to this blossom.

Bumblebees are docile creatures so unless you are disturbing their nest, they will not bother you. They do sting If provoked and can sting multiple times, but I have had them land on me without aggression. These bees nest in the ground and the queen will hibernate in her underground nest through the winter.

There are over 250 different bumblebee species and they are important pollinators of the flowers we love and are vital in agriculture. Many species of bumblebees are declining and some are even endangered. While there are a lot of suspects in their decline, it is poorly understood. Like butterflies, bumblebees benefit from flowers you plant in your yard.

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The Delaware Skipper

While photographing a wild aster a Delaware skipper landed on a flower, much to my delight. Like butterflies and moths, skippers are in the lepidoptera family of insects. There are many species of skippers; most of them are small and usually dull colors of orange-brown and tan.

Most skippers resemble a F-22 Raptor jet fighter. These insects hold their forewings and hindwings at different angles. Skippers have hooked antennae similar to the tip of a crochet hook.

The skipper flit from flower to flower, landing for a moment to suck the plant’s sweet, nourishing nectar. Gardeners often plant asters to attract butterflies and to help honeybees and bumblebees survive.  And there is something peaceful about watching these insects going about their daily routine. It is very calming.

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The Fast Food Gull

Also exploring the shore line at Sunken Meadow State Park Beach on New York’s Long Island were hundreds of ring-billed gulls. Mature ring-billed gulls have gray wings with black wing tips with spots of white, a white body and a distinctive black ring around the tip of its yellow bill.

Some gulls were scavenging the wrack for marine life to eat. Many stood at the edge of the beach where waves washed the surf often depositing snails, crabs and other salt water creatures that the gills snatched up. Others floated in the onshore breeze just above the rolling waves snatching fish from the water.

These gulls are notorious for hanging out at fast food restaurants begging for tidbits and cleaning up after people. They are also attracted garbage dumps where they rummage the piles of trash for food. These sites with the plethora of food is partly why, the ring-billed gull secure in its population.

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Mermaid’s Toenails

Another shell, we found along the wrack line of the beach at Sunken Meadow State Park on New York’s Long Island was the delicate Jingle Shell. Jingles have shiny, thin, translucent shells. This organism gets its name from the sound made when the shells bump against each other when strung on a necklace.

These bi-valve mollusks (organisms that have two shells such as the clam) are filter feeders siphoning plankton (single cell organisms) from the sea water. Normally, people only find one of the shells when it comes loose from the side that is attached to the seafloor.

Jingle Shells are also called mermaid’s toenails. The shells look like toenails that have been painted with a gloss coat of nail polish. These shells are fun to collect because they come in several pale colors and can be used in arts and crafts.

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Slippers on the Beach

After overturning horseshoe crab shells on the beach at New York’s Sunken Meadow State Park located on the Long Island Sound, my granddaughters turned their attention to the shells that washed up in the wrack. Most of the shells were Atlantic slipper shells – marine snails. If you overturn the shell and look at the underside, it resembles a small slipper.

Slipper shells lead a sedentary life, attaching themselves to hard surfaces including rock and even the empty shells of other animals. It is not unusual to see clusters of slipper shells on the same shell.

Unlike other marine snails that actively feed on algae, this species is a filter feeder. They strain plankton – microscopic bacteria, algae and protozoa that float in the marine water.

The slipper shell animal is abundant and ubiquitous, but the acidification of our oceans due to all the carbon we are putting into our atmosphere may lead to an inability for the organism to form calcium carbonate – the substance shells are made of.

Will slipper shells disappear through a mass extinction like the abundant and ubiquitous trilobites of several hundred million years ago leaving behind petrified impressions in rocks. Will Homo sapiens even be around to see these fossils and document a great extinction where most of life today as we know it disappears? Only time will tell.

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“Dead” Horseshoe Crabs on the Beach

During a recent visit to New York’s Long Island, two of my granddaughters and I walked along the shoreline of Sunken Meadow State Park to see what we could find in the wrack line (an area of debris deposited on the shore by high tides). They immediately find Atlantic horseshoe crab molts that were strewn in the wrack as far as the eye could see.

As a horseshoe crab grows, it outgrows its old shell. It develops a new, soft shell and pushes out the front of the old shell leaving the molt behind. Storms and high tides deposit many of these sheds on shore. These ancient organisms will molt many times over the course of 10 years until it reaches its full size.

Horseshoe crabs are not crabs; they are a closely related to trilobites, an ocean organism that became extinct over 252 million years ago during the Permian Extinction. Horseshoe crabs are a living fossil; they survived on this planet for 360 million years.

My granddaughters must have picked up and held out dozens of molts of all sizes as we walked along the water’s edge. Their attention turned to other organisms washed ashore which will be the subject of the next few blogs.

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