A Short Documentation of Life on A Milkweed Plant

During one of my forays with the Herbaceous Jellyfish (ie: thistles) on our land I observed one of the most bizarre bugs that I have seen. It had the head of a mantis and a long neck/thorax area that connected to claw like pinchers. From that point the body of the insect became wasp like with wings and a bulbous abdomen. It was orangish-red in color and had stripes. WHAT IS IT?!?! A google search at home by Kass for “bug that looks like wasp and mantis” quickly revealed that I had discovered a mantid fly. Unfortunately, at that time I didn’t have my camera with. So, a couple of days ago I made it a point to bring my camera up to the land and try to document these bugs. I soon found out that they were quite common throughout the thirty acres of pasture, and were obligatorily associated with the milkweed clusters throughout the pasture. Fortunately they were almost fearless and allowed me to get nice and close. So, before I go into my thoughts on these bugs I thought I would throw a few pictures out here first to bring your attention to the uniqueness that I’m talking about.

Mantid Fly on a Milkweed Plant
Look at those Mantid Eyes!


You’ll notice that it has pinchers just  like a mantis. In an attempt to discover what this bug ate, I skewered a small deer fly on a 12 inch blade of grass and dangled it in front of the mantidfly. It struck out at the dangling fly and continued to back up and run down the stem of the milkweed. He wanted nothing to do with this large insect in front of him! In fact, my prodding caused him to use his wings and flee in flight. I’m assuming based on these results that the mantidfly focus on smaller prey such as fruit flies and aphids. In almost all cases these bugs were tucked underneath leaves or at least close to cover. I think they are afraid of being eaten. After examing many milkweeds I found two cases were a dead mantid fly was tucked against the milkweed stem. It seems they are also very territorial! I can only assume/guess that the carcasses were there because of homicide from another mantidfly. Here another pictures that displays the bizzare figure of this creature.


However, during my close examination of milkweeds I became fascinated with the number of insects that I observed using the milkweed. I took pictures where the creepy crawlies allowed me to demonstrate just how important milkweed is. One of the things I saw were these aphids clinging to a leaf. They numbered in the hundreds if not thousands.

Aphids clustered up for “farming” on a milkweed.

These aphids would be an easy snack for the predatory lady bug. It was hunkered just above them. I’m sure that he was sitting there after just having his big feast of tender, juicy bugs. I almost felt sorry the aphids, however, they were not without armor and defense!

This lady bug is looking for an easy aphid snack. I bet it’s an easy dinner!

Ants, which covered the milkweed were defending the aphids and caring for them. I saw them interact with the lady bug several times and each time the lady bug recoiled from the ants. I don’t think the ants are able to hurt the lady bug, however, they can still help defend the aphids. So why, you might ask, would the ants defend the aphids? They would be a great, easy meal for the ants as well! However, ants and aphids are symbiotic and actually help each other! The Ants take care of the aphids in turn for the sugary liquid that is expelled from the aphid’s butt. You can see the liquid being expelled for collecting below! Also pictured are the number of aphids that covered the milkweed as well as the number of ants.

This ant is reaping the benefit of taking care of its defenseless aphids (sheperd and sheep). He’s sucking the energy rich excretion from the aphid.
There are a lot of aphids and ants on one milkweed flower!


I also saw many examples of spiders that inhabit the leaves and flowers a milkweed, however, only a couple of them hung around for pictures. Here is another example of life and death on the milkweek plant. This crab-spider has caught and is chowing down on an ant. I’m sure he has no problem catching as many as he needs.

It’s dinner time for this unknown species of grab spider. Ants for breakfast, supper and lunch!


I also saw several examples of this black-spotted red bug. If you happen to know the name of this one let me know! They are pretty unique.

I’m unsure of the species of these red bugs, but they were fairly common throughout the milkweed patches.

On of the great things to see was the amount of honey-bee activity happening around all of the milkweed patches. We have bee hives on our land and our pasture is a reliable source for the bees to get pollen, and they do us a favor by pollinating our flowers. The bees can be a bit aggressive however. I was stung on the day I took these pictures while standing 60 feet from the hives. I’m not sure what inspired the bee to jab himself into my back, but I was glad none of his friends follow suit.

Our land has hives on it and the milkweed were a predominant source for the bees at this time of year. There many flitting around each flower. One thing that was interesting was there were also many dead ones on the flower. I’m not sure if that’s a bad sign from inside the hive, or a natural process.

Another one of the insects to inhabit the milkweed patch were the dragonflies. There were several varieties ranging in colors of black to yellow and orange. And, in size from 1.5 inches to 3 inches. There were some really huge dragonflies. I have seen the large dragonflies take bumblebees before and I’m convinced that a large dragonfly will also cannibalize his smaller cousins and fellow species. While walking through pasture I felt one smack into the back of my head, picking a deer fly away from there in the process. The one pictured below is actually a different deer-fly kill than that one! Based on this evidence of two kills I think the take of deer flies by dragon flies must be pretty large! I hope it’s painful for the deerfly – they earned it. Note, this one wasn’t on a milkweed plant, but he was juxtaposed directly to a patch.

Redemption! I was thrilled to see this dragonfly happily munching on this deerfly.

One last random insect on the plants was this great/blue bottlefly.


Of course the one thing I haven’t hit on here at all was the number of butterflies that were using the milkweeds. There were many, but my lens didn’t have enough zoom to do many of them justice as they were skiddish and flighty.

The pictures here show a one hour glimpse of life on milkweeds. It’s amazing when you start to focus on the small things around you the details you will pick up, and there are many that you miss! Be sure to stay observant to your surroundings, and that means more than the physical. There are tiny details in the commons places of our world and personal relationships to entertain, teach and humble.

“Fireflies trapped in that big blueish black thing” (Timonian Proverb)

I’ll give some background on what I was trying to accomplish. Has anyone been watching “North America” on BBC? It documents many of the extreme climates, wildlife and places of North America. The footage that they’ve achieved is jaw dropping, and they start the episodes with a montage of sequences that includes a sunset and stars whirling over the mountain range. It is pulled off incredibly, and is something that I wanted to achieve. Challenge accepted. So, last night I set up my camera for a first attempt at this capture and photographed between 9:00 and 2:30 AM (5.5 hours of photography) in hopes of achieving a sunset and celestial movement. I cannot help but be reminded of Timon when I look at the stars. “Fireflies trapped in that big blueish black thing”. Hence the title of this entry. Although I enjoy thinking about the complexities of space, the simplicity of the description certainly serves it well!

It’s been hot here, really hot. And, rumor has it that’s how it is across the U.S. Anyone that wants to weigh in on the misery they are experiencing is more than welcome. I’m more than willing to lend an ear.  I, for one, am experiencing lack of motivation, fatigue and general crabbiness due to these clingy conditions. It’s driven me to take cover in the daytime much like a lion on the savanna. However, my small rant on the heat is just preaching to the choir, and actually has little do with my reason for this blog entry, other than to compare the intensely hot conditions of the day to those of the night in my upcoming entry.

Now, back to the meat of the thing.

  • 9:00 PM. When I stepped outside with my camera an impressive sunset was forming over Perham, MN. I was stationed south of town by about 7 miles and as I faced the sun a slight wind quartered between my left cheek and shoulder. The temperature was a mild 78 degrees, relief from the heat!  The camera went on and the tripod and were off and running. Sunset : captured.
  • 10:00 PM dew on the ground. It was cooling off fast. But my camera had died. Crap! A quick battery change and I was back online, but a small jump in the final video is how I payed for my mistake.  The stars were out and a bright, half moon was slowly settling towards the horizon.
  • 11:3o PM. One last battery change before heading to bed. And by 11:35 I was sleeping like a baby. The moon had dropped lower, and if you held your hand out in front of you it was three palm widths above the horizon.

The next morning I was very excited to collect my camera and process the results. I definitely found the gap created by the dead battery, and figure I lost about 10 minutes of shooting. However, the mixed colors of the stratus clouds were stunning as they moved overhead. The tree that I chose in the foreground was a great stabilizer to watch the movement of the stars. There are certainly things I will do differently next time I attempt this technique, however, I’m very happy with the first start! So,without further ado, the timelapse of the sunset transitioning into the nightly movement of the stars can be found below. I was fortunate enough to capture the moon setting in the lower left corner of the screen as it dropped below the horizon at about 2AM . It’s amazing how much the stars popped out once that light was gone! Credit to the Moody Blues for setting the tone!


If you have time: please comment on the ‘quality’ of the video. I don’t mean aesthetically, rather, how was the streaming experience for this video? I’m trying to determine if the process of hosting through my  Google account is decreasing the quality of the video.  I guess as a specific example, are the stars flickering in and out? They shouldn’t be doing that (should be a constant movement across the sky with no flickering), but I’m unsure if that’s a low video quality as result of my connection here or not. If hear for you all that the video quality is low I will update the blog to help fix that. Let me know!

Travels to the West: Chapter 3: 06/22/13 – 06/28/13 (Family, and, Headed East for the First time in 3 weeks!)

So Ian is giving me the reins here to document  the last leg of our incredible  journey west. For those of you who don’t know me I’m Kassie, Ian’s girlfriend of 7 years. It’s been a long and wonderful relationship although most of it has been long distance but we make it work somehow, I suspect God has a had a big hand in that. : ] Ian and I are alike in many ways and that is probably why we get along so well, one of the best parts of our relationship is we both see God in the creation He has given us and there is nothing we enjoy more than being out in His creation.

I’ll give a similar disclaimer to that of Ian’s, I’m not the best writer or storyteller and I make lots of grammatical and syntax mistakes so please bear with me as this is not my strong suit! :S Also I have a feeling this will get rather long since we have done much in the last week, even if Ian said it would be a short one we’ll have to see how long it gets…

Ian left of last time with our stop at Allyson’s in Corvallis, OR. After that amazing stop we drove the left over 8 hours back to Sandpoint, ID on Friday. Sunday we went to Farragut State Park with Sean, Jada, and Dane. The boys played disk golf while Jada, Dane, and I did some biking and hiking. Dane, Ian, and I also played at the playground in the campground. Dane loves the swings and Uncle Griz!



That night we had some awesome venison shish-kabobs over the fire, they were a little messy but so good! It was Dane’s first camping trip and he did very well, we did have to drive him around in the car to get him to fall asleep that night but he definitely enjoyed the outdoors and the s’mores! Dane is 17 months, and has been running since he was 10 months!

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The next day, Sunday, it was a rainy morning so we found a picnic shelter to hide under and made a breakfast hash of potatoes, eggs, cheese, and tomatoes. Then we took a couple of short hikes around Lake Pend Orielle before it started to downpour. Ian got nice pictures of a Rufous Hummingbird and a Black-chinned Hummingbird (see chapter 2, http://ianajohnson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/p6240135.jpghttp://ianajohnson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/p6230042.jpg) and managed to get this cute picture with Dane before heading back to Sandpoint.


The next morning we went back to the  Pend Oreille Wildlife  Area Oden Bay, as our last morning birding trip in Sandpoint. Again the little Calliope Hummingbird was guarding his little patch of land and Ian was able to take those amazing pictures in chapter 2 of him (http://ianajohnson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/p6250012.jpg).

Tuesday we went to Round Lake State Park with Dane and Sean. It was a beautiful little spot. We took the trail around the lake and Ian got some great pictures of a female Goldeneye. i’m not positive if it was Common or Barrow’s they are so similar but here she is with her young of the year. (NOTE FROM IAN: I was walking on ‘solid’ but muddy ground along the lake shore when I went into waist deep mud on the next step. Fortunately, saved the camera!!! :S. Once that happened I decided I enough pictures of the lady with the red head.)

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I was pretty excited when I saw them, never having seen a female Goldeneye, I thought it was some species of duck I’d never seen or a hybrid…  I got Ian pumped up to until Sean ruined my parade after looking at the pictures he knew exactly what they were… Oh well, still nice to see the little family.

Wednesday, It was time to say good bye to the Johnson family and head eastward again. It was a sad morning but also a bit exciting for the next leg of the journey.

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We headed out for Great Falls, MT so we could hit up Benton Lake NWR that night and the next morning. We had a spectacular birding time out there, it was a great site. We saw over 33 species of birds in 2 hours the first night we visited it. Some highlight species for us were Cinnamon Teal, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Upland Sandpipers, Black-crowned Night-Herons, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Ruddy Duck, and Marsh Wrens.

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NOTE FROM IAN 🙂 We were treated to an explosive sunset over the hills of the refuge. I, for one, have a preference for sunsets with clouds in them. The oranges, purples and blues were spread for almost 180 degrees.  One last meadow lark was singing for the night silhouetted against the array of colors. Pretty!!!

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The rest of Thursday was spent driving to Washburn, ND.My old stopping grounds. 🙂 When I was a sophomore in college I spent my summer out at Cross Ranch as a Piping Plover Technician through The Nature Conservancy. Ian and I went to the John E. Williams Preserve by Turtle Lake and walked around some of the lakes I did my research at. It was sad to see how high the water had risen this year! There were hardly any areas with enough beach for the plovers to nest. We saw around 10 pairs on one lake that still had some beach left, but only one chick was spotted. I hope next year will be a little easier on these beautiful little birds.


While the water was too high for plovers it was great for some species of birds I had never seen in this area, a couple of them being Black-crowned Night-Herons (BCNH) and Black Terns. We saw around 30 BCNH in about 2.5 hours! They just kept flying over us from East to West, I’ve never seen so many in my life! Some other noteworthy species were Marbled Godwits, American Avocets, William’s Phalaropes, Willets, Upland Sandpipers, Common Nighthawk, Northern Shovlers, and Northern Pintails.

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**NOTE FROM IAN 🙂 : The common nighthawk flying around in the daylight was a real  treat! on top of just seeing one in the daylight, he complied with picture taking by flying right over head! The red-eyed bird (you can’t miss it!) is an eared grebe. Their red eye was so intense that it was actually really difficult to photograph because of the saturation.

The warning calls from the shorebirds (NOTE FROM IAN: INCREDIBLE), specifically American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Upland Sandpiper, and the cute little Piping Plovers brought me back to a summer of being yelled at as I walked and surveyed these lakes. At times it was a bit much to take in when you are being dive bombed by Avocets but I can say I stood tall and never actually got hit by one of those sharp beaks! (They were all pretty good about flying up at the last second ; ] )

After birding we went back to Washburn and stayed with one of my previous supervisor’s, Chris Gordon.  We stayed up late chatting and reminiscing with Chris and Karen, we had such a great time! The next morning Ian made crepes and Chris took out some walleye civeche which was amazing.  We then had to say good buy as Ian and I headed out to do some more birding this time at TNC’s Cross Ranch Preserve. Before we hit the trails we got to visit with my past boss Eric Rosenquist before heading out. It was so nice to be back in this part of North Dakota, I miss this area with all of its natural beauty, its wildlife, and its down to earth residents. While hiking the trails at the preserve we were hoping to see a Baird’s Sparrow and a Spragues Pipit which have been spotted in the area before but no luck. However, Ian got pictures of a Clay-colored Sparrow and some beautiful Prairie Lilies!

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And finally we hit up the last leg of our journey home, about 5 hours back to Perham. We have about a month to relax (and do some summer school here for me) before we head out to another long road trip but this time to Alaska! (NOTE FROM IAN : Looking forward to the AK TRIP! 🙂  🙂 🙂 )

Thank you all for your time I hope you enjoyed Ian’s amazing photographs! More soon!