Arboretum Paths: Insect collecting event this Friday night!

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On a trip around the south pitcher plant bog one mid-June day last year, we spied seed pods on our longleaf milkweed ready to burst open. This resulted in a quick phone call to notify Arboretum volunteer and board member Julia Anderson to make a dash down to collect the seed before it flew the coop.
Some dedicated milkweed collectors will tie a rubber band around the expanding pods, or pop a small breathable bag over them to halt the inevitable eruption of the silk floss that functions to catch the wind and carry these brown seeds to new homes. Luckily, we were able to capture a good amount of the seed that week.
While harvesting our seeds, I snapped a few photos of the Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that were hanging out on this plant. These insects are frequently seen on milkweed during the warm months, feeding on the seeds. Classified in the insect order Hemiptera, these are “true” bugs, with piercing-sucking mouthparts that they insert into the seed pods to siphon nutrients from the milkweed seeds.
Like the monarch butterfly, milkweed bugs are an excellent example of an insect species that has co-evolved with a particular plant, developing a very specific relationship. Monarch caterpillars also feast only on milkweed. Like the monarch, milkweed bugs are amazingly not harmed by the toxic compounds contained in milkweed sap. Although some birds, mammals, and insects (such as certain wasps and stink bugs) prey on these insects with no ill effects because they have developed an immunity to the toxins consumed, for the most part, monarchs and milkweed bugs are highly toxic to predators, and therefore are avoided by them. The bright orange and black coloration, and the appearance of the monarch caterpillar certainly help in its ready identification – and its message to “keep away”.
This is a glorious time of year at the Arboretum for insects. As the weather heats up, so do the bugs! A walk through the Savanna Exhibit will reveal a wide variety of the humming, buzzing, flitting, insect life. From the delicate yellow and black swallowtail butterflies sipping nectar from the native “honeysuckle” azaleas, to the darting dragonflies and damselflies clasping the tips of meadow grasses, the insects offer a myriad of opportunities to observe, study, and learn more about their characteristics and habits.
We are looking forward to one of our biggest fall events, when Mississippi State University entomology faculty and students come down to the Arboretum to coordinate Bugfest. Last year, more than 1,500 persons visited our garden to take part in this annual “bug festival”. The dates for this year’s festivities have just been set, so mark your calendar for September 18 and 19 and make plans to come learn why the study of insects can be so fascinating. The two day event begins on Friday with a morning field day for area schools. Students will learn about collecting techniques and methods for identifying insects. MSU entomology students who assist with this event usually include those who began by attending the University’s summer “Bug Camp”, a five-day intensive exploration of all things buggy. This year’s camp will be held June 14 through 18. For more information, see the link below this column to the webpage for the Mississippi State University Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, & Plant Pathology Department. Watch a short video about the camps here. The camp is “intergenerational”, meaning, the whole family (ages 10 and up) can participate.
Many careers are available in the field of entomology, and students who simply began attending summer Bug Camp due to having a fascination for insects are now studying entomology at MSU. If you have a youngster headed in this direction, there will be ample opportunities for them to speak with the entomology students at September’s Bugfest.

If you can’t wait until Bugfest, bring the family out to the Arboretum this Friday, May 8, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. for a fun-filled Night Insect Collecting event led by Hancock County Extension Agent Christian Stephenson. Collecting equipment will be provided, just bring your flashlight! Members free; non-members, adults $5 and children $2. Please call to pre-register.
The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information about our programs and events, see the website or call 601-799-2311.
FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: For more information on the MSU Bug Camp, visit Search the Web to read more about the specific relationships that have developed between insects and plants, for example, monarch butterflies and milkweed bugs. Find some milkweed this summer to see if it is being visited by this insect!

By Patricia Drackett

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