Russian Bugs

When I visited Russia for the first time in 2005, there was only one insect that I really wanted to see - the peacock butterfly.   Although it's found throughout Europe, I figured that my chances of actually seeing it in Russia, let alone photographing it, were minimal.   It turns out that I didn't need to be so pessimistic, they were fairly common and I saw them in several places, including quite a few in the Kremlin gardens in Moscow.   This one is within the walls of the monastery of St Jacob in the "Golden Ring" town of Rostov Veliky, about 200 kilometers north-east of Moscow.

This comma butterfly certainly isn't as impressive as the peacock, but it's attractive in its own way.

The comma gets its common name, and its scientific name Polygonia comma, from the white mark you can see on the outside of its hind wing; there's another similar looking butterfly called the question mark which really does have a question mark shape on its wing, thereby earning its scientific name Polygonia interrogationis.

The dark brown and ragged wings allow the comma to hide away in the dappled light of the forest, but the topsides of the wings are fairly attractive.

small tortoiseshell butterfly   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Another butterfly from the monastery of St Jacob, this time a small tortoiseshell.

Small tortoiseshells are one of those hardy breeds of butterfly which are well suited to the harsh Russian climate.   Some overwinter, and so they're often the first butterflies to re-appear in spring.

Like commas, the males of this species are territorial and will fight off other butterflies and insects which enter their space, however they usually only defend a patch of ground for about an hour; if a female hasn't arrived by that time, a male will move on to somewhere else.

Caterpillars are often more spectacular than the moth or butterfly that they turn into, and that's certainly the case with this little critter, which is the larva of the grey dagger moth (Acronicta psi).   It took me quite a bit of searching in the trees just outside the front gate of the Russian air force museum at Monino to find it, but I think the time was well spent.

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The previous photos were all from the Moscow region, but now let's have a few from my second trip to Russia in September of 2007, which I made mostly to see the Gidroaviasalon airshow in the Black Sea town of Gelendzhik.   On the days I wasn't watching killing machines go through their paces, I went up to the top of the steep hills behind the town and tracked down some of the local wildlife, including this Convolvulus hawk moth caterpillar.   It's easy to recognize caterpillars from the large family of hawk moths (also called sphinx moths), because they have a very prominent tail, just like a dog's tail!   Because of this tail, caterpillars from this family are sometimes called hornworms.

Most caterpillars never make it to adulthood, because they end up parasitized by wasps, flies or other insects.

Here's a wasp on a very reflective area of limestone which has captured a caterpillar and is dragging it away to bury it, at which time it'll lay one or more eggs on the paralyzed but still-living prey.

The wasp was pretty annoyed that I was hanging around photographing it, I'm probably lucky that it didn't also sting me and drag me away to bury with some of its eggs.

A different species of wasp in the same area, and with the same thought in mind as the previous one!

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This is a 22-spot ladybird beetle, which has the almost impossible to remember Latin name Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata, which leads many people to naughtily refer to it as Psyllobora 22-punctata.

In case you're getting a bit confused from counting the number of spots on this ladybird beetle, here's a hint:  only the eleven spots on each wing count towards the final total!

Another yellow and black insect, but this time it's not a ladybird beetle, in fact it's not any sort of beetle, it's a "true bug".

Many people refer to ladybird beetles as ladybird bugs, but actually beetles and bugs are two different things, in spite of the common English usage (which I've even employed at the top of this page) of referring to all creepy-crawlies as "bugs".   If I was being really correct then I would have called this the "Russian arthropod page" as I've done elsewhere, but sometimes it's necessary to sacrifice correctness for clarity!

Beetles belong to the order Coleoptera, which contains about a third of all insects, which is why someone once said that "God is inordinately fond of beetles".   Coleoptera means "sheath wings", so named because the front pair of wings has developed into hard covers called "elytra", which cover the membranous hind wings used for flying.

The true bugs belong to the order Hemiptera, which means "half wings" and refers to the fact that the front pair of wings is half hard like beetles and half membranous.   Another major difference is that a beetle's elytra usually meet together in a straight line right down the middle of their back, whereas true bugs often have a criss-cross arrangement.

This poor bug probably doesn't care too much about these distinctions, it's probably more concerned about the bright red mite (an eight-legged arachnid like spiders) sitting on its back and sucking its juices out.

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Here's a bug and a beetle together in the same photo, illustrating another very important difference between the two orders.

True bugs all possess a "rostrum" which they use to eat, consisting of a long tube which is usually folded up underneath the bug's head and body.   In this case, though, a predaceous bug has stuck its rostrum into a beetle, something the beetle probably isn't enjoying too much.

Not all bugs are carnivorous, this pair on a thistle is tapping into the plant to suck out its juices.   Again you can clearly see the cross-over pattern of the wings on their backs, and the one on the left is also suffering from a mite infestation.   The bright coloration of the one on the right is probably a warning to would-be predators like birds that it tastes foul or is even poisonous.

The bug eating a beetle, the yellow bug in the previous photo and the bug in this photo all belong to a group called "shield" bugs (or, more commonly, "stink" bugs).   They got this name from the shape of their bodies, which looks somewhat like a Roman shield.

The protusions at the top of this beetle's shield look particularly pointy, which probably makes the beetle rather hard for a bird to swallow.

Being eaten is likely to be an unpleasant experience for another reason, too - they're not called "stink" beetles for nothing!

Another feature to notice is the "scutellum", the fixed triangular plate in the middle of their backs, between their wings.   All true bugs have a scutellum, and it's particularly prominent on shield bugs.

True bugs can be very attractive, but they'll never challenge the beauty of butterflies, at least in the eyes of the general public.   However dragonflies are probably a close runner up to butterflies in the beauty stakes.   I captured this bright red one outside the Zhukovsky airfield near Moscow, while photographing Russian military aircraft at the 2005 MAKS airshow.

Here's a different species, photographed at Gelendzhik.

These critters are nice to look at from a distance, and fascinating when viewed up close.

The reddish marks which you can see along the leading edges of the wings are called "stigmata"; different dragonflies have stigmata of different colors, they're one of the features which can be used to distinguish species from each other.

I suspect that this is a juvenile of the same species as the previous three individuals.   It won't get any larger but as it develops the red coloration on its back will spread, and the stigmata might change color too.

Probably another juvenile of this species.   Dragonflies are immensely helpful to people as well as being attractive; they eat huge numbers of mosquitos, both as adults and as aquatic nymphs.

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Here's a different species belonging to a different family than the previous ones.

In America this family is known as darners because of the resemblance of their bodies to a darning needle, but in Europe they're called hawkers because of their style of hunting.   Dragonflies in this family have large bodies but slender tails, and their eyes meet in an extended seam, rather than just touching together briefly like the dragonflies in the previous photos.

This one belongs to a species called the "migrant hawker" and this individual is probably a female, identifiable by the "blades" at the end of the tail which are used to make cuts in the skin of underwater plants, into which the eggs are laid.

Darners are some of the largest of all dragonflies, some of them are so large that they hunt other dragonflies!   The size of the eyes indicates that dragonflies are visual hunters, and this photo even shows the group of flat plates on the front legs which are used like a comb to wipe dust and other foreign material off the eyes.

There were plenty of grasshoppers and crickets at Gelendzhik too, like this individual with orange legs and abdomen.

Unlike that wasp, this grasshopper was so unconcerned by my extremely close presence that it even decided to keep munching on this blade of grass, rather than jumping or flying away.

This curious looking thing is a conehead grasshopper, so named because of the shape of its head.   Its shape, together with the color and texture of its skin, allows it to do a very good imitation of a blade of grass.

Grasshoppers have relatively short antennae with fewer than 30 segments, but crickets like this one have longer antennae.   In both cases there are six stages of development from the newly hatched juvenile to the adult.   The undeveloped wing buds on the back of this one shows that it isn't yet an adult.

In spite of the differences in coloration, I suspect that this is an even less developed nymph of the same species as the previous photo.

Look closely and you'll see that it's also picked up one of those bright red mites, which is probably too small to cause serious harm to its host.

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We've covered butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, bugs, grasshoppers and crickets, so it should be pretty obvious that we're starting to scrap the bottom of the barrel as far as ratings in the human popularity poll are concerned.

This is a bug belong to an order of insects called the scorpionflies, and this is the first one I've ever seen anywhere in the world.   They're a much older family than even butterflies or moths, first appearing about 250 million years ago.

Scorpionflies are very recognizable from the shape of their head, but this family gets its name because the males of some species have abdomens which curl upwards and forwards, like the stinger of a scorpion.   In fact, they are harmless and eat soft fruit and dead insects.

Yuck, here's a really nasty looking thing - or is it?   Take a closer look and you see that it actually has rather nice colors and patterns on its abdomen, if you can just look beyond those dark black hairs which look just like the ones coming out of your grandfather's ears!   Not only does it have a certain beauty, but tachinid flies like this one are also very useful to humans, since they help to control many crop pests by laying eggs which hatch and feast on their host.

OK, so you weren't convinced when I said that the tachinid fly is both attractive and useful, were you?

Here's the final group of critters then, and just to make you happy, it's something which eats flies.   One entymologist even claimed that if it weren't for spiders we'd all soon be knee deep in flies, which isn't an exaggeration, because flies can lay huge numbers of eggs and those eggs develop into breeding adults very rapidly.

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I was very surprised to see this spider in Russia, because it looks almost exactly like a shamrock spider I've seen in the United States.   It seemed strange to see the same spider in both places, particularly considering it's the type of spider which would rather hide inside a curled leaf than walk to the other side of the planet.

However, it turns out that it's a different member of the genus Araneus, this one's scientific name is Araneus diadematus, but it's so common that it's usually called the "garden spider", or sometimes the "cross spider" because of the white cross-shaped mark at the front of its abdomen.

See the bugs of Belize, Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, Mexico, the USA and Vietnam.