The Mystery of the Orange Bug

As a lover of nature and all its small, crawly things, I often drop everything to observe and identify even the smallest bug. Much to the annoyance of my coworkers and volunteers, I just can’t give it up!

Learning to correctly identify the creatures around me brings a lot of fun and joy, but also:

  • Increases my scientific understanding of the world
  • Adds to my taxonomic and ecological knowledge
  • Builds empathy and compassion for the lives of smaller beings
  • Gives me a greater sense of place and familiarity in my Kansas homeland
This is the face of our little mystery. There were over ten of these orange bugs on a single plant!

Identifying the creatures around you is not always intuitive. Recently I found some small, orange, wiggly friends in the landscaping at my house. And so begins the mystery! Here are the steps and resources I always use to identify new-to-me bugs. Hopefully they can be useful to you as well!

Step One: Photograph

Make sure to quickly capture some detailed images of your friend. Life for a bug is fast paced — they are moving, flying, fleeing, eating or being eaten! You will need to have a good photo to refer to, as your search for answers may last longer than your memory.

I like to snap a quick photo with my iphone, but for tiny details I add a clip on macrolens. This one was very inexpensive and does a great job.

Insect or other?

Start by discerning whether you are a looking at an insect or something else. The word ‘bug’ is used to generalize all small, crawly things, but there are important distinctions. Spiders, for example, are not insects. Roly-polys are not insects. Earth worms are not insects. Counting legs and body segments of your specimen can help you determine if it is an insect; true insects will have 6 legs and 3 distinct body segments.

This diagram shows the 3 main body parts of an insect, and the characteristic 3 pairs of legs. Diagram from Wiki Commons

If you are a beginner and don’t know much terminology, use the easy picture-based and shape-based search tool BugFinder. My mystery friend could not be found on this form. They had 6 well-defined legs but no obvious body segments. I thought perhaps I was looking at a caterpillar (still an insect!), so I visited DiscoverLife and answered their beginner-friendly caterpillar search form. In the past it has been tremendously helpful, but not this time.

Step Two: Where is it?

Where is this individual living? If you can identify its preferred habitat, you have a huge clue to discovering its identity. My mystery bug was living and feeding on Scutellaria resinosa, (also known as skullcap), but nothing else around it. Many insects have a host plant (a specific food plant that the babies must eat) or host plant family. By knowing the plant, I can work backwards and find out what insects are likely to feed on or interact with it. Sometimes these interactions are called faunal associations.

When searching the web to identify a new insect, remember to include the plant it was found on and the region of the world you are in. This will narrow your search. I love to use the maps at butterfliesandmoths.org to see what species have been spotted in my area.

The blooms of Smoky Hills skullcap. Photo by Craig Freeman

Step Three: Ask and Post

If you have scoured the internet and all your favorite insect guidebooks, but still are stumped, it is time to visit BugGuide.net. They are “an online community of naturalists who enjoy learning about and sharing our observations of insects, spiders, and other related creatures.” There you will find a wealth of information on insects and their common whereabouts, but you can also post photos and ask questions of that expert group. They love to share their passion, and “to instill in others the fascination and appreciation…for the intricate lives of these oft-maligned creatures.” You may also find answers by posting a photo to your local naturalist Facebook groups.

And the bug is…

A shining flea beetle larvae, Asphaera lustrans! I finally found my answer by searching through the records at BugGuide.net and coming upon this page. While I can’t be sure, it was the closest match I could find. I also discovered that particular flea beetle hosts on Scutellaria, so I became even more convinced of its identity. I plan to post my photos and ask the experts on BugGuide to be sure.

Identifying wildlife and plants in your region is a lifelong pursuit; a never-ending puzzle. It can provide hours of stimulating entertainment for adults and children alike, and it will introduce you to like-minded folks who are also curious and engaged with world around us.

Next time you see a bug crawling across your porch or on your kitchen sink, don’t squish! Capture it, take a photo, release it outside, and begin the fun of unraveling its mystery!

Front Yard Native Landscaping

As a new homeowner, there are a thousand projects around the house vying for my attention. But none call to me more than landscaping. After a few weeks working on the basement, I needed a break! I redirected my energy and landscaped my front yard!

Walk the Walk

I talk often and openly about the ecological problems inherent with a “well kept lawn”. Now that I finally have my own lawn, I wanted to convert part of it to something earth conscious, yet attractive. With smart design, landscaping can feed birds and insects, build soil integrity, and take very few inputs. I will always have a good sized patch of weedy Fescue for the dog to play Frisbee in, but more and more of the yard will get planted to natives every year.

Proper Prep

First, I sprayed two adjacent sections of our front yard with a strong application of glyphosate. It was not an easy decision: I am not a fan of using this chemical, or any chemicals in the landscape. But when contending with bermuda grass, my options were limited. Bermuda is a fierce, non-native competitor that will easily overtake a native flower bed if not eradicated properly. On the sides of the house, where bluegrass, Fescue, and dandelions are prevalent, I expect solarization to work wonderfully next spring and summer.

Hymenoxys scaposa (perky Sue) is adorably small; six inches tall with cheery yellow flowers the size of a quarter. It is a great addition in my front yard because of its petite, tidy habit.

Planting

A few weeks later I planted right into the dead thatch of the grass. I like to plant thick, aiming for a very full, lush look and less weeding in the long term. Then I back-filled each hole with some rocky, sandy soil from a long abandoned planter box on the side of the house. This might help the clay soil drain better for the drought hardy species I wanted to incorporate. A flag at each plant ensures I don’t miss any while watering.

Though I am always so excited to plant, it doesn’t look like much for the first year. But by next fall it will be the talk of the neighborhood.

In my design, I focused on purples, whites and yellows to complement a pale blue porch. Made up of many western Kansas species, this garden is extremely drought tolerant once established, staying full of blooms for pollinators even in hard times. When I get a free weekend, I will layer the empty spaces with newspaper and wood chips to discourage weeds. Luckily, my city has a free wood chip pile nearby!

Scutellaria resinosa (skull cap) a wonderfully petite mint-family plant native to North Central Kansas. Photo By C. Freeman

Here are some of my favorites included in the design. Many are native, others are non-natives well adapted to heat and drought:

Allium spp.
Amsonia hubrichtii
Asclepias verticillata
Baptisia minor
Ericameria nauseosa
Hymenoxys scaposa

Lavandula ‘Hidcote’
Muhlenbergia capillaris
Nassella tenuissima
Prunus besseyi
‘Pawnee Buttes’
Sporobolus heterolepis
Scutellaria resinosa

I plant Amsonia mainly for its foliage, but the blue blooms are a welcome sight in spring.

Grass But Not Lawn

I used Sporobolus heterolepis along the sidewalk and Muhlenbergia capillaris for a slightly taller focal point. To keep my front yard looking intentional, tidy, and appropriate to my neighborhood setting, I kept the plants under twenty four inches mature height, except for a few accents. My neighbors are already giving me funny looks about all the flags in my yard!

Yet to be included in the planting, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium is a must have for pollinators and for its delicious minty scent.

My co-workers have all taken their work home with them too; planting natives in their home landscapes and seeing the wonderful change in biodiversity these plants bring . It was time for me to do the same! Once the garden matures, I hope it inspires others to convert more of their underused front yard space to valuable, attractive wildlife habitat.