Whole new cast of creatures arrives with warmer weather

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Half of 2012 is now history and summer keeps on the move, always pushing toward shorter days and cooler weather. As July weather patterns stabilize a bit and daytime temperatures climb into the 90s, a whole new cast of creatures come to the Walla Walla Valley's stage.

These are warm weather animals that until now have remained tucked away underground, under rocks, under and in logs, in cocoons and in so many different forms you would not believe it. They come from eggs, larvae, nymphs, instars, pupa, worms, maggots, caterpillars, galls, oothecae and combs, to name a few.

These are the insects. These creatures are 100 percent perfect when they emerge. They have no flaws or deformities -- if any are deformed their chance of survival is zero.

Most folks only meet up with "summer bugs" on their windshields, walkways, around outdoor lights at night and maybe landing on them or their food at a picnic. Insects are everywhere and they have adapted to this county through thousands of generations of getting it right.

There are 24,000 species of beetles in North America north of Mexico. Today we will explore the beetles and one in particular: a truly amazing creature called the cadaver or burring beetle in the genus Nicrophorus.

An inch-and-a-quarter long, the black beetle has bright orange designs on its elytra, the hard shell on the back of most beetles that protects the soft abdomen and flight wings. The burring beetle sounds like a bumble bee when in flight. It also "squeaks" by rubbing its abdomen against its elytra.

It generally flies no more than five or six feet above ground, constantly scanning the air for signs of decomposition. It is attracted to dead vertebrates such as mice, birds, frogs, bats and shrews, among others. It lands on the dead animal after detecting it from many hundreds of feet away and crawls down along the soil under the carcass, where it digs in an effort to create a shallow trench as it starts to bury the carcass.

As it does so this insect will remove any feathers or fur on the carcass and then mold the whole dead animal into a rotting ball. It conducts war against any competing flies and their eggs by releasing dozens of mites the beetle hosts. These mites then devour fly eggs laid on the carcass, thus eliminating the potential of maggots that would compete for the rotting tissue.

Adult burring beetles also feed on fly maggots as well as rotting fruit. They lay their eggs beside these rotten balls in the ground and then proceed to hang around to protect their young as they hatch and emerge in larva form.

Watch for these brightly colored beetles near or on dead animals, such as road kills along the edge of roads.

Our second wild thing to take note of this month is a beautiful plant: the wavy leaf thistle, which grows along the Snake River in northern Walla Walla County.

This spectacular native thistle produces a very large pale-lavender flower head amid gray-green leaves. These big flowers are very important to native bees, butterflies, wasps, beetles and flies that depend on them for pollen. Growing to a height of five feet, plant develops 6-10 large flowers. The flowers have an outstanding scent that on a warm day can be smelled from many feet away

Who would have thought that a large plant like this would grow in hot weather out of dry soil? Check them out as you enjoy this great county in your travels.

Life is good.

Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at m.denny@charter.net, or by calling 6-8 p.m. weekdays at 529-0080.

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