Noddy’s Back!

Okay, call me a complete geek, but I’m inordinately pleased about today’s find in the vegetable garden—Noddy’s flycap. This striking and mysterious mushroom showed up last year, causing great excitement and a blog post. The word from the scientific community was we weren’t likely to see it again for a long time, as it doesn’t seem to fruit every year.

Ha! Another thing we can tick off as an unknown for this fungus. Second year in a row Noddy’s has popped up in the garden.

As far as I know, the fungus still has no official scientific name, and its origin remains as mysterious as it was when I wrote about it last year. So for now I’ll simply enjoy the whimsy of this most delightful of fungi.

Summer Rock Concert

It’s a cicada; it must be summer.

The main cicada season doesn’t really start until the chorus cicadas (Amphisalta zealandica) come out after Christmas, but two weeks ago, we found a few chirping cicadas (Amphisalta strepitans) on the rocks around Okains Bay.

Cicadas are largish, as insects go, but they’re well camouflaged. Usually, you find them by sound. As with most insects, it’s the males that do the singing. The main part of a cicada’s song is made by flexing plates (tymbals) on top of the body. Built-in amplifiers (opercula) pump up the volume to an astonishing level. Cicadas are noisy. I don’t know if any of the New Zealand species have been tested, but the calls of some North American cicadas are over 105 decibels at a distance of 50 cm. That’s nearly as loud as a rock concert (115 decibels). When the chorus cicadas here in New Zealand come out in large numbers, they can be so loud in some places that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.

Some New Zealand cicadas add an extra feature to their song—a bit of drumming called clapping. The cicada snaps the leading edge of its wings against a branch to make a sharp click. Females also clap, and I’ve read (though I’ve never tried it) that you can call the males to you by snapping your fingers.

There are about 2500 species of cicada worldwide. Because of their size and volume, they seem to be culturally important wherever they live. They are eaten as food in many areas, and sometimes used as fish bait. Growing up, my siblings and I used to collect the shed exoskeletons of cicadas and attach them to our clothing like jewellery. When I lived in Panama, the children would catch cicadas and tie strings to their feet, then carry them like helium balloons, flying on the end of the string.

Wherever they live, they mark the seasons. Here in New Zealand, and in America where I grew up, summer hasn’t really started until the cicadas sing.

Loud singing? Drumming? Must be a summer rock concert!

Wasp 1: Cleaning 0

I try to keep a clean and tidy house, but sometimes it’s just not possible.

I was going to dust this weekend, but the first spot I ‘dusted’ was the dining room windowsill. It’s a big window and, for some reason, most of the insects that get into the house seem to end up there when they die.

Next thing I knew, I had a handful of dead insects in a petri dish and was looking at them through the microscope. Most were insects I was familiar with—old friends I was catching up with—but this lovely lady was new. A tiny parasitic wasp, but I couldn’t quite place her family. Several hours, a couple of taxonomic keys, and a stack of entomology books later, I still wasn’t certain, but I tentatively put her in the family Pteromalidae.

Oh, and the cleaning was entirely forgotten.


Spring is spittlebug season. Just about the time I want to start picking and dehydrating the perennial herbs, the spittlebugs descend upon them. In bad years, it makes harvesting herbs a slimy task.

Spittlebugs are also known as frog hoppers. As adults, they are cute, squat, dun coloured insects with spectacular leaping abilities. They really do resemble frogs (with a little imagination).

It’s the nymphs that have the disgusting habit of spitting. Well, it’s actually not spit at all. The foamy slimy ‘spittle’ is a combination of fluid from the insect’s anus, and slimy gunk from glands on the insect’s abdomen. The insect sits head downward on the stem of a plant and exudes the ‘spittle’, letting it pour over its body and cover it completely. The resulting mass keeps the young insect protected from enemies and from drying wind and sun. Gross, but effective.

Like humans, who usually stop blowing bubbles in their milk as adults, spittlebugs leave off spittle production when they grow up. As adults, they use their hopping ability to avoid predators.

Some species of spittlebug can become significant agricultural pests, stunting the growth of herbaceous plants and some forestry trees, but in the home garden, they’re usually not much more than a minor nuisance.

Beech Forest Hiking

I’m particularly fond of hiking in early spring. It’s not for the spring weather, which is often raw and windy, or for spring flowers, which aren’t particularly abundant in the bush. No, it’s for the lack of German wasps.

Much of the forest we hike through is dominated by beech (not the northern beech, but several species of Nothofagus). Beech is host to a fascinating ecosystem which has been invaded by non-native wasps.

Throughout much of its range, beech is infested by scale insects. The scales live in the bark of the trees, feeding on sap. Because sap is low in nutrients and high in sugar, the insects need to excrete the extra sugar. Each insect has a long anal tube through which it ‘pees’ concentrated sugar water called honeydew.

Drops of honeydew form on the tips of the anal tubes and fall to the ground, tree, trunk, and branches around the insects. The entire area ends up coated in sticky sugar.

Sooty mould grows on the sugar coated surfaces, turning trees and forest floor black, and giving the beech forest a distinctive smell. The sooty mould is eaten by a variety of insects, including moths and beetles.

But not all of the honeydew simply drops to the ground. Native birds and insects (and hikers) drink the drops of water on the tips of the scales’ anal tubes. For wildlife, honeydew is an important winter food, when flower nectar is scarce.

German wasps enjoy honeydew, too, but only in the summer.

By mid-summer, the beech forest hums with the sound of millions of wasps collecting honeydew. For me—allergic to wasp stings—it means a hike requires constant vigilance lest I grab a tree trunk for balance and end up in anaphylactic shock. But in springtime, the wasps aren’t yet out and about, and I can enjoy the sticky smell of the beech ecosystem without worry.

Upcoming release: Backyard Bugwatcher

The final proof…

I’m excited to announce the upcoming release of Backyard Bugwatcher. This kid-friendly book includes all the cool information and identification keys from Insects in the Classroom. A great addition to any bug-lover’s library, this guide complements insect guides like Which New Zealand Insect? and Life-Size Guide to New Zealand Insects, giving you additional background information on a broad range of New Zealand arthropods, and providing keys that can help you learn to quickly categorise creepy crawlies for identification.

Contact me to order your copy, or order on 

What are the Odds?

A winter storm dropped nearly an inch of sleet on us overnight. I crunched through the ice in the dark this morning to feed the animals. After emptying sleet out of the chickens’ feed tray and filling it with pellets, I turned and saw, in one of my footprints, a bright green/blue glowing spot.

Bioluminescence. There was no mistaking the colour. I carefully scooped up the bit of glowing sleet and held it in my hand. I could think of no terrestrial source of the glow. There are no glowworms in my vegetable garden, and no bioluminescent fungi. Besides, this was in the ice, not on the ground.

The spot glowed for a moment between my fingers. Then the ice melted, the light went out, and whatever had made the glow dripped to the ground.

I spent an hour online looking for any reference to bioluminescence in snow, and found none. The only explanation I could come up with for my glowing sleet was that a phosphorescent marine creature was picked up in sea spray four kilometres away, frozen, and then deposited in my garden. My stomping foot disturbed it, and it glowed briefly before, most likely, succumbing to a deadly infusion of fresh water.

What are the odds that organism would be picked up from the sea and whisked four kilometres inland? What are the odds it would land in my garden? What are the odds it would have still been alive when I trekked out to feed the animals? What are the odds I would step on that tiny organism and induce it to glow?

Very, very tiny.

I was given a tremendous gift this morning. One of those gifts that reminds me to always keep my eyes open. You really never know what you might see.

Playing with Spiders

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know I love jumping spiders. I’m not alone. In fact, I know people who, in general, can’t stand spiders, but who are nevertheless fond of jumping spiders.

I think part of the reason people like jumping spiders is that they are such visual animals. Like us, they navigate their world using visual cues. They turn to watch something pass by. They walk around objects placed in their path. They react to stimuli in a way we can understand.

The other day, a jumping spider on the computer screen began stalking the cursor as though it were a tasty fly. My husband began to play with the spider in much the same way we dangle a string for the cat. It was terribly cute. I know the cat understands it’s a game, but I doubt the spider did. I’m sure it ended up frustrated it couldn’t catch that little dancing arrow.

What We Don’t Know

dsc_0009We headed to Tumbledown Bay today, ostensibly to try out the new snorkelling gear Santa brought us for Christmas. The water was murky and absolutely freezing, so it wasn’t exactly the best snorkelling, but it was a great day at the beach, regardless.

The seals were probably the best part of the day. There were lots of them, and they were vocal and active most of the day. A couple of them were even body surfing. They’d catch a wave and leap along with it almost all the way to the shore, then swim out and do it again. It was great fun to watch

The rock pools were great, too, as they always are. We saw some starfish, lots of snails, limpets, and chitons. I never get tired of them. In the sandier pools there were lots of marine isopods (sea slaters). I sat for a while at one pool and watched them. Some were just 3-5 mm long and the colour of sand. Some of the sandy-coloured ones had a white diamond on their backs. One, almost 10 mm long, was rusty orange with a white diamond on its back. The most spectacular was about 8 mm long, and had red and yellow markings, reminding me, oddly, of a European goldfinch.

As I sat there, I realised I had no idea whether I was looking at one species of slater with many colour variations, or twenty species.

A little research at home revealed that I’m not alone in my lack of knowledge of New Zealand’s marine isopod fauna. There are just 211 aquatic isopod species described for New Zealand. Scientists estimate that there are about eight times that many species. It’s not just the deep-water types that are poorly known, but many of the easily seen intertidal species are also undescribed. It seems these common little scavengers have been largely overlooked by science.

So the mystery remains—how many different isopods did I see today? As far as I know, no one can tell me the answer. But rather than disappointing me, the knowledge that we just don’t know excites me.

Anyone who thinks we know everything about planet Earth and the only real frontiers are in space is sorely mistaken. There is so much to be discovered, not just in exotic locations like the Amazon rainforest, but on the beaches that thousands of people visit every year, in the rivers and streams we cross daily on our way to work, even in our own back yards. There is so much about which we understand so little. The scientist in me quivers with excitement.

Did I see one species of isopod or twenty? No one knows. Doesn’t it make you want to go to the beach and peer into tide pools to find out?


Stalking the Wild Tardigrade

2016-05-25 14.50.00The recent rain has got me thinking about tardigrades. Tardigrades are, of course, one of the most awesome creatures of the animal kingdom–able to survive freezing, desiccation, radiation, intense pressure, and the vacuum of outer space, just to name a few. I mentioned them in a sci-fi short story I wrote over the summer, and have been meaning to go looking for them ever since.

Well, the moss is nice and wet now, so I figured it would be a good time to find some. I collected some moss, soaked it, squeezed out the water and, voila!

I found springtails,

And mites,

And paramecia,

And nematodes,

And some things that looked and acted like microscopic leeches…

But no tardigrades.

I peered down the microscope until my eyes crossed. I squeezed out more water from my moss.

No joy.

No tardigrades.

Of course, that just makes them all the more exciting. Now I have a challenge—stalking the wild tardigrade.

Stay tuned…