The Secret Life on a Tree—Part Two: Other Insects and Arthropods

The Secret Life on a Tree—Part Two: Other Insects and Arthropods

This three-part series in honor of Earth Day 2020 is brought to you by Smokies Live and Discover Life in America. Other parts of the series can be found here:

Part One: Bees

Part Three: Mysteries


By Will Kuhn, Director of Science and Research at Discover Life in America. All photos by Will Kuhn.

Like many of us, I’ve spent most of my time over the past few weeks at home. But that’s okay: the weather has been gorgeous, warm and sunny, and everything in our yard is greening up. As an entomologist, I have been drawn outside to see what bugs and critters are emerging.

In my backyard, there is a tree—let’s call her Mabel. Mabel is an ornamental pear or plum planted by the previous owners. She’s squat, skews a little to one side, and every spring she explodes with white flowers and absolutely buzzes with insect activity.



Mabel, the ornamental tree and veritable menagerie

While admiring Mabel’s crop of blossoms last year, I noticed that there were many shapes and sizes of bees frantically flitting between her branches. I wondered just how many different kinds there were and started collecting them to find out. I figured I’d find half a dozen or so different bee species. I found 18!

Mabel was host to at least 18 different kinds of bees, sipping her nectar and collecting her pollen, all at the same time! There were the familiar honey bees and a few carpenter bees dive-bombing my head when I walked by. There were also tiny metallic green bees, fluffy mason bees, a variety of mining bees, a couple of bumblebee species, and even some wasp-like nomad bees.

This year, Mabel’s annual blossom explosion occurred just as I started working from home due to COVID-19. I’ve spent a lot of my extra home time admiring the life around this tree and have become obsessed with documenting everything I can find on iNaturalist. Every morning, lunch, and evening, I grab my phone, stroll over to her, and photograph whatever I see—and there is so much to see!

Here is a selection of some of the 50+ lifeforms that I’ve found on and around my dear Mabel with some musings about each. There are bees, other insects and arthropods, some fungi, and even a few mysteries. Follow me down the rabbit hole!

Want to document the life around your own backyard Mabel? Check out Aaron Searcy’s article about how you can with the iNaturalist app.

Other insects and anthropods (and a mushroom)

Bearded carpenter ant (Camponotus subbarbatus) – This common little ant makes its nest by burrowing through rotten wood. She and her sisters patrol Mabel’s branches for food in the form of sap, insects (dead or living), and honeydew produced by aphids and other insects.

Green lacewing (probably Chrysoperla sp.) adult and egg – This beautiful insect has metallic eyes, lacey wings, and ferocious, alien-like larvae that feed on other insects. She lays her eggs in a stalk, which is thought to protect it from prowling ants and/or to keep their larvae from cannibalizing each other. It’s a larva-eat-larva world out there!

Brown lacewing (Hemerobius sp.) – Brown lacewings have a similar story to their green cousins, but they tend to be rarer, and I find them to be infinitely more interesting!

Thick-headed fly (Myopa sp.) – These flies are parasitic on mining and honey bees. I wonder which of Mabel’s bees this fly is parasitizing.

Hover fly (Toxomerus sp.) – This friend is a member of a group of flies that is particularly agile in flight and is wont to hover in place. Its larvae are predators of aphids, like those found on Mabel’s branches.

Crane fly (Limoniidae) – This dainty little creature looks like a giant mosquito but is in fact harmless. I have found many of this species nestled in Mabel’s flowers, and they have a tendency to bounce up and down when disturbed, as if doing squats after having too much coffee.

Two-lined leatherwing beetles (Atalantycha bilineata) mating – These amorous friends are out in droves right now, sipping on Mabel’s nectar and snacking on her pollen. This species is one of many insects that share an orange and black motif, which could be a mimicry ring centered around distasteful firefly species.

Tortoise beetle (probably Cassida piperata) – This non-native beetle species is part of a group named for the turtle-like appearance of their wing coverings (elytra).

Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) and clutch of eggs – Introduced from east Asia, this species is ubiquitous in North America. They feed on soft-bodied insects like aphids as both larvae and adults. This female laid several clutches of orange eggs on twigs nearby a few families of aphids.

Aphids (Aphididae) – This cluster of aphids is surely doomed to become a feast for Asian lady beetle larvae, once they hatch from their nearby eggs. There are also hover fly and lacewing larvae waiting to lap up any survivors. Doomed!

Springtail (Hypogastrura sp.) – There are gobs of these pudgy friends on Mabel’s shaded lower bark. I don’t know what they’re doing or eating, but they sure are cute!

Orchard orbweaver (probably Leucauge venusta) – This colorful spider species is very common in this area. This one has spun a small web in Mabel’s shaded understory, near the springtails.

Parchment fungus (Stereum sp.) – These little shelf mushrooms are growing on one of Mabel’s dead branches, slowly helping to break it down.


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