Category Archives: Entomology

Friday Fellow: Arctic Woolly Bear Moth

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Last week I introduced the arctic willow, an unusual willow that lives as a creeping plant in the Arctic and, as I mentioned then, many species feed on this small plant. One of this species is Gynaeophora groenlandica, known as the arctic woolly bear moth.

As it is common among lepidopterans, the caterpillars of the arctic woolly bear moth feed mainly on only one species, in this case the arctic willow. But they are much more than only a caterpillar feeding on an unusual plant.

An arctic woolly bear moth among the branches of an arctic willow. Photo by Fiona Paton.*

Inhabiting greenland and the islands of Canada, the arctic woolly bear moth lives in an extreme environment in which temperatures are very low during most of the year. As a result, it is unable to remain active during several months and, like many arctic species, it hibernates.

In most of the world, the caterpillar of the arctic woolly bear moth would be considered of an average size but in its environment it is a relatevely large insect. Its body is covered by soft and long hair which varies from a reddish-brown to a dark-brown color. Adults have a grayish color with a hairy abdomen.

An adult waiting to mate. Photo by iNaturalist user pat_lorch.**

The adults mate and lay eggs around the end of June. The eggs hatch very quickly and the small first-instar larvae start to eat on arctic willow leaves but during July the temperatures start to drop quickly and the very small larvae prepare to hibernate. They spin a silken hibernaculum, a shelter to hibernate, and enter diapause, remaining inactive until June of the next year. When the snow starts to melt, they wake up, start to feed again and molt, reaching the second instar before the end of June. Then they spin another hibernaculum and enter diapause again. This cycle continues for the next years until they reach the 8th year since they hatched.

A caterpillar waking up in its hibernaculum. Photo by iNaturalist user pat_lorch.**

In that year, the caterpillars molt into pupae, which develop into adults in about a week. The adults then mate, lay their eggs, the eggs hatch and new first-instar larvae restart the cycle. Hatching in late June of the first year and mating and dying in mid June of the 8th year, the arctic woolly bear moth completes its life cycle in about 7 years, but this is restricted to 3 only weeks each year. They spend more than 90% of their life as hibernating caterpillars.

Two adults mating in June. Photo by iNaturalist user pat_lorch.**

It is not easy to be a moth in the cold Arctic. And the arctic woolly bear moth must not only survive the harsh winters but is always threatened by parasitoids, because we all know that those damn creatures exist everywhere.

And with such a specialized life cycle, what could happen with the arctic woolly bear moth now that the temperatures in the Arctic are rising? Will it survive what we have done with Earth’s climate?

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References:

Morewood WD, Ring RA (1998) Revision of the life history of the High Arctic moth Gynaephora groenlandica (Wocke) (Lepidoptera: Erebidae). Canadian Journal of Zoology 76:1371–1381.

Morewood DW, Wood MD (2002) Host utilization by Exorista thula Wood (sp. nov.) and Chetogena gelida (Coquillett) (Diptera: Tachinidae), parasitoids of arctic Gynaephora species (Lepidoptera: Lymantriidae). Polar Biology 25: 575–582. doi: 10.1007/s00300-002-0382-y

Wikipedia. Gynaephora gronelandica. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gynaephora_groenlandica >. Access on February 9, 2020.

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Friday Fellow: Reddish Cuckoo Wasp

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Besides the well-known internal and external parasites that feed on resources of the host, nature has other types of parasitism as well. One of those types is the so-called brood parasitism, in which an animal puts its eggs in the nest of another animal so that they will be raised by foster parents, usually from a different species. Cuckoos are certainly the most famous brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds.

But brood parasites exist among other animal groups as well, including, of course, the diverse order Hymenoptera. Wasps of the family Chrysididae are known as cuckoo wasps because they put their eggs in the nests of other wasps. One species of this family is Hedychrum rutilans, which I decided to call the reddish cuckoo wasp.

A reddish cuckoo was in the Netherlands. Photo by iNaturalist user v_s_*.

Adults of this species measure up to 1 cm in length and have a kind of ant-shaped body. Its most striking feature, however, is its metalic color, which is typical of cuckoo wasps. In the reddish cuckoo wasp, the abdomen and the front part of the thorax have a reddish tinge, while the rest of the body is somewhat green.

Living in Europe and the northermost regions of Africa, the reddish cuckoo wasp is a lovely nectar drinker as an adult. However, as a larva, it is a parasitoid. Females put their eggs inside another insect so that the larva feeds on the host from inside. However, as I mentioned, cuckoo wasps are brood parasites, hence the name cuckoo wasp. Thus, they do not hunt other insects to serve as hosts for their larvae. Instead, they invade the nests of another species, the European beewolf, which I presented last week, and lay their eggs on the bees that the European beewolf has hunted for its own offspring.

Reddish cuckoo wasp in France. Photo by iNaturalist user butor*.

When the egg of the reddish cuckoo wasp hatches, the larva starts to feed on the paralyzed bees and can even feed on the growing larvae of the beewolf. But how can the female cuckoo wasp manage to invade the beewolf’s nest without being noticed?

The surface of insects is covered by cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs), which have several functions. They protect the body from water and have many functions for chemical communication, both intra- and interspecifically. Parasitoids, for example, rely on CHC cues to find their hosts, and many species, especially social insects such as bees and ants, use CHCs to recognize individuals of their own colony and to detect any invader, incluing parasitoids and brood parasites. Thus, a beewolf could easily locate a cuckoo wasp sneaking into its nest but natural selection made the necessary changes. The amount of CHCs on the surface of cuckoo wasps is way below the normal levels found in most insects. As a result, their smell is so weak that it cannot be perceived in a nest that reeks of beewolf CHCs.

A specimen in Russia. Photo by Shamal Murza.*

One strategy that beewolfs seem to have developed to reduce the levels of parasitism by the reddish cuckoo wasp is increasing their activity in the evening, when the cuckoo wasp activity is reduced. During this time, it is easier for beewolves to enter their nests without being detected by cuckoo wasps. When a beewolf detects a cuckoo wasp close to its nests, it attacks it ferociously. However, once a cuckoo wasp enters the nest, the beewolf is unable to recognize it even if running right into it due to its inability to chemically detect the invader.

Both parties, of course, will always try to find new ways to succeed. Nature is, afterall, a neverending arms race.

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References:

Kroiss J, Schmitt T, Strohm E (2009) Low level of cuticular hydrocarbons in a parasitoid of a solitary digger wasp and its potential for concealment. Entomological Science 12:9–16. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8298.2009.00300.x

Kroiss J, Strohm E, Vandenbem C, Vigneron J-P (2009) An epicuticular multilayer reflector generates the iridescent coloration in chrysidid wasps (Hymenoptera, Chrysididae). Naturwissenschaften 983–986. doi: 10.1007/s00114-009-0553-6

Strohm E, Laurien-Kehnen C, Boron S (2001) Escape from parasitism: spatial and temporal strategies of a sphecid wasp against a specialised cuckoo wasp. Oecologia 129:50–57. doi: 10.1007/s004420100702

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Friday Fellow: European Beewolf

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Among the species of the highly diverse insect order Hymenoptera, many are known to be parasites or parasitoids of a variety of animals and plants. Commonly known parasited species include spiders and caterpillars, but some hymenopterans parasitize other hymenopterans.

One of such species is Philanthus triangulum, known as the European beewolf. The name beewolf refers to the fact that this wasp species hunts bees, particularly the common honey bee Apis mellifera. This species occurs throughout Europe and Africa, having several subspecies.

A female European beewolf in Gran Canaria, Spain. Photo by Juan Emilio.**

The European beewolf has about the same length as its prey, the common honey bee, but its body has a more typical wasp look. The abdomen and the legs are predominantly yellow, while the head and the thorax are mainly black and brown. The yellow abdomen has black transversal stripes that are typical in many wasp species but their width can vary. Males are smaller than females and have a characteristic trident-shaped light mark between the eyes that is absent or very small in females.

A male in Andalucia, Spain. See the trident-shaped mark between the eyes. Photo by flickr user gailhampshire.*

In colder regions, where the winter is harsh, adult European beewolves emerge as adults in early summer. Both male and female adults feed on the nectar of several plants. Females create large and sometimes complex burrows in sandy soils in open sunny places. The burrows may have up to a meter in length and have between 3 and 34 short tunnels, the brood cells, at the end, each of which will be used to raise one larva. Once finishing the burrow, the female searches for honeybees to hunt. When attacking the bee, the beewolf stings it behind the front legs and paralyzes it, and then flies back to the nest carrying the paralyzed bee below her between her legs. Up to five honeybees can be provided for each larva and serve as their only food during their development.

A female with a paralyzed bee in England. Photo by Martin Cooper.*

Males tend to live near female burrows and use sex pheromones to attract them. Although they are territorial, they can sometimes tolerate other males nearby because the increased release of feromones increases the chances of them being detected by the females.

After the female has provided each egg with enough food, it closes the burrow and leaves. However, since the larvae will remain several months in that closed and humid environment, they can end up suffering from mold growth that can destroy themselves or their food. Females seem to have developed several strategies to reduce this problem. First, before laying the egg on the bee, the wasp licks most of the bee’s surface, applying a secretion from a postpharyngeal gland. Although this secretion has no antimycotic properties, it seems to delay water condensation on the bee’s surface, which also delays the development of fungi, and at the same time prevents water loss from the bee’s body, ensuring that the larvae will have the necessary amount of water to survive.

Carrying a bee into the burrow in England. Photo by Charlie Jackson.*

Female beewolves also live symbiotically with bacteria of the genus Streptomyces, which they cultivate in specialized glands in their antennae. They “secrete” the bacteria into the brood cells before leaving and later, when the larvae hatch, they collect the bacteria and apply them on the surface of a coccoon that they build to overwinter. These bacteria thus prevent fungi or other bacteria from growing on the coccoon, protecting the larvae from infections.

Nature never stops amusing us with its wonderful strategies so beautifully built by natural selection.

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References:

Herzner G, Schmitt T, Peschke K, Hilpert A, Strohm E (2007) Food Wrapping with the Postpharyngeal Gland Secretion by Females of the European beewolf Philanthus triangulum. Journal of Chemical Ecology 33:849–859. doi: 10.1007/s10886-007-9263-8

Herzner G, Strohm E (2008) Food wrapping by females of the European Beewolf, Philanthus triangulum, retards water loss of larval provisions. Physiological Entomology 33:101–109. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3032.2007.00603.x

Kaltenpoth M, Goettler W, Dale C, Stubblefield JW, Herzner G, Roeser-Mueller K, Strohm Erhard (2006) ‘Candidatus Streptomyces philanthi’, an endosymbiotic streptomycete in the antennae of Philanthus digger wasps. International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology 56: 1403–1411. doi: 10.1099/ijs.0.64117-0

Wikipedia. European beewolf. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_beewolf >. Access on 20 February 2020.

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Friday Fellow: Spotless Lady Beetle

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Lady beetles, also known as ladybirds or ladybugs, are popular beetles famous for their round bodies and spotted elytra. Not all species have spots, though, such as Cycloneda sanguinea, adequately known as the spotless lady beetle.

A male spotless lady beetle in Florida, USA. Photo by Judy Gallagher.*

Occurring from the United States to Argentina, the spotless lady beetle is the most widespread lady beetle in South America. Its elytra vary from orange to deep red, while its pronotum and head have the typical black color with white marks that most lady beetles have. There is a little difference between males and females. Males have a white stripe running through the middle of the anterior half of the pronotum and the head has a white square on the “forehead”. Females lack the white stripe on the pronotum and have the white square crossed by a black mark, which turns it into two white stripes.

A female in Uruguay. Photo by Joaquín D.*

After mating, the female lays small clusters of yellow eggs on the vegetation, which hatch into larvae after about 10 days. The larva has the typical look of lady bettle larvae and the body in later instars have dark gray and yellow marks. The time that it takes to go from egg to adult varies a lot depending on the temperature, with higher temperatures accelerating development. Thus, in warm climates, the spotless lady beetle can have more than one generation per year.

A larva in Mexico. Photo by Francisco Sarriols Sarabia.*

The spotless lady beetle feeds mainly on aphids and, as many other lady beetle species, is used as a biological control against these plant pests in many crops, such as cotton, pine, beans and citrus species. It is a voracious aphid predator both as a larva and as an adult and females prefer to lay their eggs on plants that are infested by aphids to assure their offspring will have plenty of food.

A male about to take flight in California, USA. Photo by iNaturalist user kstny.*

Currently, one of the main threats to the spotless lady beetle is the Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis, which was deliberately or accidentally introduced in many areas in the Americas. Larger and more more aggressive, the Asian lady beetle outcompetes the Spotless Lady Beetle especially by eating its eggs and larvae but also by consuming its food, as both species have aphids as their main prey.

This is one more example about how biological control can be a nice alternative to spread poison on pests but only if conducted without introducing a voracious predator into another ecosystem.

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References:

Cardoso JT, Lázzar SMN (2003) Comparative biology of Cycloneda sanguinea (Linnaeus, 1763) and Hippodamia convergens Guérin-Méneville, 1842 (Coleoptera, Coccinellidae) focusing on the control of Cinara spp. (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Revista Brasileira de Entomologia 47(3): 443–446. doi: 10.1590/S0085-56262003000300014 

Işkıber AA (2005) Functional responses of two coccinellid predators, Scymnus levaillanti and Cycloneda sanguinea, to the cotton aphid, Aphis gossypii. Turkish Journal of Agriculture and Forestry 29: 347–355.

Michaud JP (2002) Invasion of the Florida Citrus Ecosystem by Harmonia axyridis (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) and Asymmetric Competition with a Native Species, Cycloneda sanguinea. Environmental Entomology 31(5): 827–835. doi: 10.1603/0046-225X-31.5.827

Sarmento RA, Venzon M, Pallini A, Oliveira EE, Janssen A (2007) Use of odours by Cycloneda sanguinea to assess patch quality. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 124(3): 313–318. doi: 10.1111/j.1570-7458.2007.00587.x

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Friday Fellow: Yellow Mayfly

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Mayflies make up the order Ephemeroptera, one of the oldest ones among insects. Closely related to dragonflies and damselflies (order Odonata), mayflies have an aquatic nymph and a terrestrial imago (i.e., adult). One considerably well-known species is Heptagenia sulphurea, commonly known as the yellow mayfly or yellow may dun.

Native from Europe, the yellow mayfly lives most of its life as a nymph. It prefers running and clean waters, where it lives under stones and feeds on decaying plant matter and associated bacterial biofilms. The nymph has a flattenned body of a dark color with several yellowish marks. The legs are short and white and have a series of alternating yellow and black sinuous transversal stripes. Like in all mayfly nymphs, the abdomen has visible gills on both sides and three longe cerci (tails) at the tip. During its final stage as a nymph, the yellow mayfly is about 1 cm long.

Nymph of the yellow mayfly. Credits to European Fly Angler.

Most mayflies are very sensitive to pollution and the yellow mayfly is one of the most sensitive of all, at least in Europe. Whenever the water of a streams starts to get polluted, the yellow mayfly is the first mayfly species to disappear. Thus, its presence indicates water of very good quality.

Female subimago in Russia. Photo by Robin Bad.*

Different from all other insects, mayflies have an intermediate stage between the nymph and the imago stages, the so-called subimago. This stage is already terrestrial like the imago and already has wings, although they are often less developed, making them poor fliers. This subimago stage is commonly known as dun and, in the yellow mayfly, it has a typical yellow color, hence the common name yellow may dun. Females have black and poorly developed eyes, while in males the eyes are larger and vary from dark gray to whitish. Nymphs molt into subimagos beginning in May, when the peak occurs, but may appear as late as July.

Male imago of the yellow mayfly in Russia. Photo by Vladimir Bryukhov.*

When the subimago molts into the adult, usually after only a few days, the body becomes light brown and the eyes whitish in both sexes, but the eyes are still smaller in females than in males. Adults have the sole purpose of reproducing and so they do. After mating, the male dies in a few hours, and so does the female after laying her eggs in a stream.

The yellow mayfly is often used as a fishing bait. Once a common species across Europe, its populations have decreased considerably in the last century due to the increase of water pollution. Some recent efforts to despolute streams may, fortunately, help this and other mayfly species to find again more room to thrive.

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References:

Beketov MA (2004) Different sensitivity of mayflies (Insecta, Ephemeroptera) to ammonia, nitrite and nitrate between experimental and observational data. Hydrobiologia 528:209–216.

Macan TT (1958) Descriptions of the nymphs of the British species of Heptagenia and Rhithrogena (Ephem.). Entomologist’s Gazette 9:83–92.

Madsen BL (1968) A comparative ecological investigation of two related mayfly nymphs. Hydrobiologia 31:3–4.

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Friday Fellow: Black-Tipped Leafhopper

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The first fellow of 2020 is found in the forests, gardens and plantations of Southeast and East Asia. A member of the small insects commonly known as leafhoppers, its scientific name is Bothrogonia ferruginea and its common name is black-tipped leafhopper.

Leafhoppers belong to the order Hemiptera and feed on the sap of several plant species. The black-tipped leafhopper measures a little more than 1 cm as an adult. The dorsal color is yellow, a little greener on the wings than on the head and the thorax, and there is a group of black spots on the head and thorax, as well as a black margin at the posterior end of the forewings. The eyes are black an the legs are also yellow, with black areas at the joints. Some specimens may have a more orange tinge, from which the name ferruginea (rust-colored) must have come from. The ventral side is black with a yellow border in each segment.

Bothrogonia ferruginea in Japan. Photo by Wikimedia user Keisotyo.*

Eggs are elongate, greenish and small are laid in small clutches in the spring. The first-instar nymphs, which are small and white, hatch from the eggs after about 8.5 days. They develop into adults after about 2 months, passing through 4 more nymph instars. Adults are at first immature and live for 10 months. They slowly develop their sexual organs during summer and autumn, hibernate during four month in winter, and wake up from hibernation in spring, ready to mate.

Nymph of the black-tipped leafhopper in Taiwan. Photo by iNaturalist user nicolle10.**

Male black-tipped leafhoppers attach their sperm to a rope-like transparent material and transfer it to the females inside a large spermatophore, which is placed in their bursa copulatrix. Part of the material inside the spermatophore seems to be transferred into the eggs, as if it was some sort of nutritional gift of the father to his future kids.

It has been suggested that the peculiar color pattern of the black-tipped leafhopper is a form of mimetism. Their yellow background with black spots resembles the color pattern of ladybug pupae. Since ladybugs contain some toxins that makes them an unpleasant meal, imitating them helps the black-tipped leafhopper to be avoided as a food by many predators.

Two black-tipped leafhoppers in Taiwan. Photo by iNaturalist user nicolle10.**

As the black-tipped leafhopper feeds on several plant species, it can be a threat to some crops, especially grapes and tea. More than only feeding on the plants sap, the black-tipped leafhopper can be a vector to transmit the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa between plants. This bacterium is responsible for many plant diseases, including the Pierce’s disease of grapes, which leads to shriveled fruits and premature death of leaves.

Fortunately, the black-tipped leafhopper is not (yet) a major threat to any crop so there is no urge in studying their life history in details.

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More Hemipterans:

Friday Fellow: Pea Aphid (on 12 June 2015)

Friday Fellow: Southern Green Stink Bug (on 10 May 2019)

Friday Fellow: Wattle Horned Treehopper (on 23 August 2019)

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References:

Hayashi F, Kamimura Y (2002) The potential for incorporation of male derived proteins into developing eggs in the leafhopper Bothrogonia ferruginea. Journal of Insect Physiology, 48(2), 153–159. doi: 10.1016/s0022-1910(01)00159-7 

Tuan SJ, Hu FT, Chang HY, Chang PW, Chen YS, Huang TP (2016) Xylella fastidiosa transmission and life history of two cicaellinae sharpshooters, Kolla paulula and Bothrogonia ferruginea (Hemiptera: Cicadellidae), in Taiwan. Journal of Economic Entomology 109(3): 1034-1040. doi: 10.1093/jee/tow016

Yamazaki K (2010) Leafhopper’s face mimics the ladybird pupae. Current Science 98(4): 487–488.

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Friday Fellow: Hippo Fly

by Piter Kehoma Boll

If you ever lived in the countryside or visited the country side often, you may be aware of the existence of an annoying group of flies that bite humans and other animals, the so-called horseflies that make up the family Tabanidae. Today’s fellow is a member of this family and is known scientifically as Tabanus biguttatus and commonly as the hippo fly.

This species is found throughout Africa and some areas of Middle East, being, apparently, much more common in eastern and southeastern Africa. As with all tabanid flies, the hippo fly has an aquatic to semiaquatic larva that lives in muddy areas. They are ferocious predators and prey on other animals living in the same habitat, such as larvae of crane flies, and can also feed on dead animals. When the larvae are about the pupate, they construct a mud cylinder, cover it with a circular lid with only a small hole to allow them to breathe, and remain there until they turn into adults. This is, apparently, a strategy to avoid desiccation.

Male hippo fly in South Africa. Photo by Ryan Tippett.*

Adult hippo flies measure about 2 cm in length, being relatively large tabanids, and show a considerable sexual dimorphism. As all tabanids, males are smaller but have larger compound eyes than females. The eyes of the males are so large that they touch each other, covering the whole top of the head. Females, on the other hand, have smaller eyes with a considerable space between them. The body of both males and females is predominantly black. Males have two white triangular spots on the abdomen while females have the thorax covered with white to golden hair with a small heart-shaped black spot in the middle.

Female hippo fly in South Africa. Photo by iNaturalist user bgwright.*

Male adult hippo flies are harmless and feed only on nectar. Females, on the other hand, need mammal blood to obtain enough protein for egg development. They attack many large mammal species, including humans, cattle and even dogs, but they have a strong preference for hippos, hence the common name.

Two female hippo flies feeding on a southern warthog (Phacocerus africanus spp. sundevallii). Photo by iNaturalist user happyasacupake.*

Hippo flies, like all tabanids, are diurnal flies and love sunny places. They avoid shaded areas, so animals in open areas are much more vulnerable. To get blood, a female approach animals and cut their skin with her sharp mouthparts, making them bleed and licking up the blood. This bite is very painful, which you may know if you have ever been bitten by a horsefly. If undisturbed, the fly can remain up to three minutes drinking blood.

Closeup of the two flies on the warthog’s back. Photo by iNaturalist user happyasacupake.*

The blood-drinking activity of female hippo flies, and of tabanids in general, make them likely mechanical vectors of some parasites, including species of the flagellate genus Tripanossoma, as well as Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, which is a considerably common disease in hippos.

Hippo flies are such a nuisance for hippos that their behavior is heavily affected by the flies’ presence, much more than by the presence of any large predator. Most of the time, hippos remain in the water solely to get rid of these annoying insects.

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More Dipterans:

Friday Fellow: Housefly (on 12 October 2012)

Friday Fellow: Cute Bee Fly (on 29 July 2016)

Friday Fellow: Bathroom Moth Midge (on 5 April 2019)

Friday Fellow: Blue Paddled Mosquito (on 27 September 2019)

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References:

Callan EM (1980) Larval feeding habits of Tabanus biguttatus and Amanella emergens in South Africa (Diptera: Tabanidae). Revue de Zoologie Africaine 94(4): 791-794.

Tinley KL (2009) Some observations on certain tabanid flies in North-Eastern Zululand (Diptera: Tabanidae). Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London. Series A, General Entomology, 39(4-6), 73–75. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3032.1964.tb00789.x

Tremlett JG (2009) Mud cylinders formed by larvae of Tabanus biguttatus Wied. (Diptera: Tabanidae) in Kenya. Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London. Series A, General Entomology, 39(1-3), 23–24. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3032.1964.tb00779.x

Wiesenhütter E (1975) Research into the relative importance of Tabanidae (Diptera) in mechanical disease transmission. Journal of Natural History, 9(4), 385–392. doi: 10.1080/00222937500770281 

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