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More backyard adventures: the brash and the bashful

Venture out for a stroll anywhere in Michigan on an August day, and you’ll be greeted by the most phantasmagorical assortment of tiny characters imaginable if you know where to direct your gaze. Peer carefully at the blades of grass beneath your feet, at the cracks in the sidewalk, behind the porch light, or at the flowers blooming away in your gardens. The creatures busy going about their business there reflect a strange dichotomy that's commonplace in any natural area in the world: they either really, really want you to see them… or they really, really don’t.

Take, for example, this little cuckoo wasp that I recently spotted hanging out above my back door. Like many insects that can sting, it bears warning coloration that tells would-be predators to give it a wide berth (though this particular variety of wasp has difficulty penetrating human skin). Its colors were stunningly bright, but its diminutive size and hyperactive flight from perch to perch made it difficult to get a good look with the naked eye.

Or take this little green sweat bee. Not quite as herky-jerky and erratic as the cuckoo wasp, she happily went about her business pollinating away and trusting that her bright colors would warn any would-be predators that she was ready to defend herself if the need arose.

This feather-legged fly is another pollinator who is brightly colored in an attempt to make would-be attackers think twice; however, her hope is that any predator who takes notice of her would think she’s a bee that could deliver a painful sting. Note how the feathery appendages on the legs even mimic a bee’s pollen baskets. In reality, this fly has no sting—she simply displays a case of Batesian mimicry, wherein a harmless animal has evolved to look like another that would make a more noxious meal for a would-be predator.

The gray tree frog prefers a different approach. It has no sting or noxious toxin, so it prefers to hide all day—often in plain sight. These dumpy little frogs are commonly seen climbing windows at night, hoping to make an easy meal of the insects attracted to the light shining from inside the house. (If you’ve never seen them, keep an eye out! I once asked my now-husband if he had ever noticed tree frogs on his windows at night, and he told me that he never had. A couple nights later, he decided to actively look and see if there were any about, and he found not one but six on/around his back door). They can even change color from a very pale gray down to a very dark green to better blend in with their surroundings. However, if you see through the camouflage and disturb one, they have one last trick to play: the insides of their hind legs are bright yellow or orange, warning colors that would usually indicate that the animal in question is toxic or venomous. A would-be predator might be surprised enough to hesitate, giving the frog a chance to escape.

Perhaps the most classic example of a master of camouflage is the walking stick. They are likely common visitors to our yards and gardens, but their morphology and their behavior both play a role in helping them go completely unnoticed (until they slip up and either wander onto your house or up your leg, which are the two ways that I most commonly find them). They are not only colored like sticks, but they are shaped like them. They also move like them with slow, hesitant, jerky motions like a small branch swaying in the wind. They rest with their antennas and front legs all held together out in front of them, as though all these appendages were actually part of a single twig. Only when disturbed do they move quickly... and if you drop them in the grass and they decide to hold still, good luck. You may not be able to spot them again.

Tomorrow morning, take a moment to check the outside of your home as you step outside. See who's still hanging around from the night before. Eat your lunch outside and keep watch to see who visits the flowers. Maybe keep a magnifying glass or a macro lens handy to catch details you've never noticed before (like I did with the pictures of the cuckoo wasp and sweat bee above. I'm ashamed to admit that I never knew before taking these photos that such insects have not two but five eyes-- the pair of obvious ones, and the three smaller ocelli on the tops of their heads). Enjoy the wonderland in all its fantastical details, and learn something new about the world you've always taken for granted.

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