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What Time is it in Nature: Insects on Rattlesnake Master

July 5, 2014

The Rattlesnake Master in the Nature Neighborhood Garden at Prairie Ridge is currently in bloom, and this spectacular plant’s odd structure and biology were the subject of last week’s What Time is it in Nature. The blooms are interesting in and of themselves, but they are also highly attractive to a wide variety of insects. You may see two dozen species of insects visiting a single plant at a time during the bloom, so the diversity is quite impressive. Let’s explore some of the Rattlesnake Master’s recent visitors! The most common things you’ll see visiting the flowers are members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the ants, bees, and wasps:

Great golden digger wasp with sand wasp in background

The larger, black and red wasp in the photo is a Great Golden Digger Wasp, a large parasitic species in the thread-waisted wasp group.  The females of this species build underground burrows in which they will lay their eggs.  However, their larvae are carnivores, so they also need to pack their nests with paralyzed prey for their young to feed on after they hatch.  They’ll grow as they feed on the food left by their moths, developing into pupae once they have grown sufficiently large, then emerging as adults above ground.  You can usually find several of these wasps visiting the Rattlesnake Master, and you can’t miss them!  Just look out for the inch long, red and black wasps crawling over the flowers.

Another conspicuous wasp you’ll find on Rattlesnake Master flowers is a member of the scoliid wasp family:

Scoliid wasp

Like the Great Golden Digger Wasp, scoliid wasps are parasites of other insects.  Their system is a little different, however.  Scoliids are typically parasites of the C-shaped grubs of scarab beetles and will dig down to the grubs, sting them, and lay an egg on them.  When the scoliid egg hatches, the larva will feed on the scarab grub, eventually pupating and emerging from the ground as an adult.

Wasps aren’t the only hymenopterans you’ll find at the Rattlesnake Master flowers.  Ants can be spotted taking advantage of the nectar:


When ants are present on the flowers, you will often see quite a few of them at a time.  If you ever see a Rattlesnake Master flower that looks sort of like it’s moving, take a close look.  You’ll probably find dozens of ants!

Other groups of insects also visit Rattlesnake Master flowers in bloom, including a variety of beetles.  This beetle…

Delta flower scarab beetle

… is a Delta Flower Scarab.  It’s not as big as some of its scarab relative, but it’s a very showy scarab characterized by the yellow triangle (the shape of the letter delta in Greek) on the thorax.  These beetles also tend to hold their hind legs up above their bodies, as in the photo above, and walk about the flowers with only the front and middle pairs of legs.

Soldier beetles are also regular visitors to the Rattlesnake Master flowers:

Soldier Beetles

These Margined Leatherwing beetles were sipping nectar from the flowers when they came across one another, and the female kept right on feeding as they mated!  There is surprisingly little known about these beetles, but like other soldier beetles, Margined Leatherwings have leathery upper wings rather than the hard upper wings (elytra) of most beetles.  These are very common beetles at Prairie Ridge, and you will find them on many different types of flowers throughout the grounds sipping nectar, but they are also thought to capture and consume prey occasionally as well.

There are, of course, butterflies that visit the Rattlesnake Master:

Common buckeye butterfly

Common Buckeyes are, as the name suggests, common at Prairie Ridge. These butterflies sport showy eyespots and white and orange bars on the upper surface of their wings and are common visitors at the Rattlesnake Master flowers. You’ll often find them sitting on the flowers nearest the ground, though they startle easily and will fly away if they see any sudden movements.

The Gray Hairstreaks are smaller, but a lot bolder:

Grey hairstreak butterfly

These butterflies are slower to fly away when you walk by and will continue feeding on nectar so long as you don’t get too close. Gray Hairstreaks get their name from their gray color and the tiny hair-like filaments that extend off their wings. They are the most widespread hairstreak butterfly in North America and commonly spotted in weedy habitats.  On warm, sunny days, you may easily see half a dozen of them spread out across the Rattlesnake Master plants.

The Rattlesnake Master is amazing!  These are just some of the species you’re likely to see at the Rattlesnake Master plants, and there are several other showy, interesting, and/or beautiful insect species that visit the plants when they bloom.  On your next visit to Prairie Ridge, be sure to check out the Nature Neighborhood Garden, and I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes watching the Rattlesnake Master if you do. You’re sure to be astounded by the riot of life on the flowers!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth

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