Dragonflies and their relatives are an ancient group. Meganisoptera is an extinct order of very large to gigantic insects, occasionally called Griffinflies. The largest known Griffinfly and/or insect of all time was a predator resembling a dragonfly but was only distantly related to them. Its name is Meganeuropsis, and it ruled the skies before pterosaurs, birds and bats had even evolved. The oldest fossils are of the Protodonata from the 325 Mya Upper Carboniferous of Europe, a group that included the largest insect that ever lived, Meganeuropsis permiana from the Early Permian (300–250 Mya). Meganeuropsis permiana was described in 1939 from Elmo, Kansas. It was one of the largest known insects that ever lived, with a reconstructed wing length of 330 millimetres (13 in), an estimated wingspan of up to 28 inches (710 mm), and a body length from head to tail of almost 430 millimetres (17 in). Nevada designated the Vivid Dancer Damselfly (Argia vivida) as the official state insect in 2009. Sadly, I have no photos of the state insect but Nevada has many eco-zones and the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve has quite a number of equally beautiful species.
When I first moved to Las Vegas there were virtually no mosquitoes and no flies. However as the population has increased and the local climate has changed with more landscaping and water we have seen a corresponding increase in bugs. That is not to say that there were no insects in the desert, as with flowers and plants you just have to look more carefully. There are an amazing variety of specialized insects living in the desert surrounding Las Vegas under conditions that would be considered hostile for any other insects. Again just like flowers and plants, the insects can come and go quickly over specific times like spring or after precipitation and are often found in specific areas suited to their needs. The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is a great place to see lots of unusual insects due to the presence of water and hospitable plants. Bees, wasps, dragonflies and butterflies are diverse and are part of the special ecology of the preserve, both prey and predator for birds and other inhabitants. Fortunately, there are very few mosquitoes, probably due to the dragonflies and the dry heat. Due to carefully selected and strategic native plants, there are a variety of native flowers all summer long which support a diverse and vibrant ecosystem. In this post I thought I would focus on some really interesting bees and wasps which I saw at the preserve.
Butterflies have been held in reverence and high esteem for millennia, enshrined by the ancient Greeks in the mythical love affair between Cupid/Eros and Psyche the butterfly goddess. According to Greek mythology, Psyche was a beautiful maiden who fell in love with Eros/Cupid. Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite, was jealous of Psyche’s beauty and tried to keep the lovers apart. Eventually, however, Aphrodite realized that Cupid and Psyche were destined to be together and so Zeus made Psyche immortal. Psyche is also the Greek word for “soul” and “butterfly.” Although the original Greek story has been lost to history, the mythology of Cupid and Psyche was preserved in the book Metamorphoses written in the 2nd century CE by Platonicus. The Greek story of Eros and Psyche is known from at least the 4th century BCE and was a popular subject in Greek and Roman art. The word for butterfly in formal Greek is psyche, thought to be the soul of the dead. Ancient Greeks also named the butterfly scolex (“worm”), while the chrysalis – which is the next stage of metamorphosis from a caterpillar – was called nekydallon, meaning “the shell of the dead”. The metamorphosis of the butterfly inspired many to use butterflies as a symbol of the soul’s exit from the body. Thus, the myth of Psyche concomitantly signifies soul and butterfly. It has come to mean the story of the soul coupled with divine Eros, but which must nevertheless endure tribulations before achieving immortality. Psyche, a mortal woman, was released from death by Zeus, the father of the gods, who took pity on her and granted her immortality. Psyche’s mythological imagery in ancient art is represented with butterfly wings, amply depicted in pottery as well. Freed from death, the body of the soul could fly freely, soaring, departing from the shackles of the chrysalis. I thought this lovely Greek story would be the perfect introduction to a review of beautiful butterflies.
Very few organisms consume nectar exclusively over their whole life cycle, either supplementing it with other sources, particularly insects (thus overlapping with insectivores) or only consuming it exclusively for a set period. Many species are nectar robbers or nectar thieves, performing no pollination services to a plant while still consuming nectar. Nectar-feeding is widespread among birds, but no species consumes nectar exclusively. Most combine it with insects for a mixed diet. Of particular interest are four lineages of specialized nectar consuming birds in the New World: the Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and three members of the Tanager (Thraupidae) family; Bananaquits, Flowerpiercers and Honeycreepers. These groups have adapted to permit a nectar-central diet, showing higher activity of digestive enzymes which break down sugars, higher rates of absorption of sugars, and altered kidney function. Birds need the enzyme sucrase in their bodies, in order to digest the sucrose of nectar. And most simply don’t have enough. Scientists think birds that can readily digest sugar, like warblers, have an adaptive advantage. When they fly to the tropics for the colder months, they can tap into sources of sugar that other birds just can’t handle. That sweet tooth, it turns out, is important to their survival.
Madagascar is home to huge variety of insects, the majority of which are endemic (found only in Madagascar) and unique given the island’s remote location. Thousands of species are present in some groups such as the beetles and moths. There are approximately 100,000 species of insects and counting in Madagascar. Famous and bizarre at the same time is the giraffe necked weevil.The males of this species have red wings and have a long, giraffe-like, black neck. The females’ neck is shorter, but still extraordinary long. If you take a closer look, you can discover perfectly camouflaged stick insects in bushes and branches, who mimic thin branches with their bodies. Some species like the pink winged Sipyloidea sipylus spray a harmless defensive secretion if touched. You can also find different species of praying mantis, which capture skilfully smaller insects with their arms, everywhere in Madagascar.