Praying Mantises in Goldenrods: A 2019 Highlight

As the year ends, I am reviewing some of the highlights of 2019 nature walks in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit. Observing Praying Mantises in patches of Goldenrods for three whole weeks in September is definitely one.

Looking ahead to 2020: The plan is to get the word out as soon as the 2020 “Praying Mantis in Eliza Howell Goldenrods” season begins, inviting anyone interested to come to observe at one of several different identified times.

I spent many hours in 2019 observing the fascinating behavior of Praying Mantises.

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I see Praying Mantises in Eliza Howell when the adults begin their end-of-the-year behavior – seeking mates and laying eggs – in September. This year I noted the first one on September 11, seen here in an upside-down position that they sometimes take as they wait for insects.

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The Praying Mantises seemed more common this year, though perhaps the timing of my visits and/or my observation skills improved; I saw several on almost every visit until the end of the month.

On September 16, I saw the first of the many mating pairs. Though the color of the male and female are different here, that is not always the case. The male is smaller and has longer antennae. They mate in upside-down positions or in upright positions or in horizontal positions.

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The female often multitasks while mating. Looking carefully at the above photo, one can see that she has caught and is eating an insect.

It is easy to get pictures of mating pairs because mating is not finished quickly. I have sometimes returned and found a pair still in the process 2 hours after I first noticed them.

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Praying Mantises are attracted to goldenrods no doubt because so many insects are attracted to the blooms. A Mantis will wait patiently until an insect gets close and then strike with one or both of the powerful front feet. The next picture shows one starting to eat, head first, what might be a bald-faced hornet.

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Last year I wrote more extensively about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” (September 13, 2018) than I am here. While they sometimes attach their egg cases to goldenrod stems, they will often select a sturdier plant near the goldenrods. Here is a female making the egg case into which she then deposited eggs. The whole process took about 3 ½ hours. The position for egg laying is head down in every one that I have seen.

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It has only been in 2018 and 2019 that I have focused my attention on the close relationship between Praying Mantises and blooming goldenrods. In 2018 the mantises were present a little earlier in the season than they were in 2019, and for a shorter period of time. So I hesitate to predict when they will show up on 2020, but, as noted above,

the plan is to get the word out as soon as the 2020 “Praying Mantis in Eliza Howell Goldenrods” season begins, inviting anyone interested to come to observe at one of several different identified times.

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Common Milkweed: A Frequent Stop

From May until October, Common milkweed is one of the flowers that I stop at regularly on my rounds in Eliza Howell Park. From being a “weed” in need of eradication, it has in recent years acquired both respectability and fame as a host plant for the larvae of the popular Monarch butterfly. I watch it for that role and for many other reasons.

In September, the plants, many of them 4 feet tall, are dominated by follicles (seed pods).

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When the seed pods open – and some are just beginning to do so – we can witness the delicate beauty of the seeds attached to the silk that allows them to be dispersed by the wind. This is definitely worth seeking out a sunny fall day.

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Common Milkweed is a perennial wildflower native to eastern North America that spreads both by seeds and by underground rhizomes, the second being the reason they are often found in patches. They sprout in May, usually shortly before the Monarchs return. (This year I saw the first Monarch on May 15.)

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Monarchs start laying eggs on the milkweed leaves almost immediately after arrival. Once hatched, the larvae (caterpillars) eat the tender leaves. This picture of a tiny caterpillar is from early June.

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By the end of June, milkweed is beginning to flower. I was especially struck this year by how fragrant the flowers are. Even for someone like me, who does not have the most sensitive nose, it is easy to know that one is in a patch of blooming milkweeds from the fragrance alone.

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Milkweeds get their name from the fact that leaves and stems, when broken, produce a milky sap. There is a toxicity in the milkweed plant and Monarchs acquire this toxicity from ingesting the leaves as caterpillars. The result is that adult Monarchs are not preyed upon by birds, who have come to know that Monarchs are not healthy food.

Monarch butterflies are not the only insect that benefits from using Common Milkweed as a host plant for young. In September, it is easy to find seed pods covered with Large Milkweed Bugs. In the picture, the left shows adult Large Milkweed Bugs and the right picture is of young ones (nymphs). (Yes, there are Small Milkweed Bugs, but not in this entry.)

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Large Milkweed Bugs have some characteristics similar to Monarchs: milkweed is the host plant on which the young feed; they are orange and black; they acquire a protective toxicity from milkweed; they migrate south for the winter.

I have recognized Common Milkweed for as long as I can remember, but I have only really gotten to know it from my observations in Eliza Howell Park in recent years. The more I know about it, the more I like it.

 

Goldenrods: A Special September Attraction

I have associated goldenrods with September for some 70 years, ever since I was in the early grades of elementary school and back-to-school days included a yellow-papered “Goldenrod Writing Tablet.”

Now, I enjoy many September hours in the midst of the different goldenrod species in Eliza Howell Park, watching the “critters” they attract.

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Many of the Eliza Howell summer wildflowers are nearing the end of their blooming season, but the insects appear to find goldenrod nectar plentiful and satisfactory.

Some of those attracted are large and iridescent. Here are two views of the same individual (Great Black Wasp, I think).

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Some are black and white (Bald-faced Hornet and Black and White Wasp).

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The Locust Borer Beetle is one that I do not remember from previous years. It is possible that I missed it or have forgotten, but I wonder if it is now becoming more common in EHP.

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Two that I do remember – and did an entry on last year – are the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle and the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, a moth that does not lead one to think immediately of “moth” when first seen.

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Sometimes the flowers get crowded, but most insects seem to be willing to share.

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It is not just insects that are attracted.

Sometimes there is a mammal (not pictured) wandering among the goldenrods, carrying a little camera.

Snails (Brown-lipped or Banded snails) prefer the stems to the flowers.

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Goldenrods were for years inaccurately thought to be a major contributor to “hay fever” symptoms. There is no reason to avoid and many reasons to enjoy a large path of goldenrods, definitely one of the highlights of September.

In addition to others not mentioned, the wasps and beetles and bees and moths and snails and I are grateful for their presence.

 

Among Bees and Wasps: Close and Careful

I spend many hours from July into September walking among the wildflowers and among the insects in Eliza Howell Park. My interest in observing insects leads me to try to get very close to them, including to wasps and bees.

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When I show these kinds of pictures (taken with a phone camera), I often get asked about being so close, about the risk of getting stung. The risk is real, of course, and the questions have led me to reflect upon the fact that I have not (yet!) been stung during any of my many Eliza Howell nature walks.

I have given considerable thought on how to behave among stinging insects. The starting point is the understanding or belief that bees, wasps, hornets do not (normally) resort to stinging unless they are disturbed or threatened or perceive that their nests are threatened. Some threats are accidental, such as stepping on a bee, but our behaviors can greatly reduce the extent to which we are perceived as a threat.

Trying carefully to be non-threatening has led to many opportunities to place the camera within inches of a stinging insect.

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In trying to practice “non-threatening” behavior, I try to implement two practices: 1) approach insects slowly and deliberately, with no quick movements; 2) when insects focus their attention on me or when they are/appear to be disturbed, stay perfectly (non-threateningly) still.

The first is easier to implement than the second. A slow approach has resulted in dozens of close-up views, especially when the insect is fully engaged in foraging for nectar.

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The second practical principle (stay perfectly still when insects sense you are or might be a threat) is harder to implement. It requires resisting a tendency to run or swat.

Recently I was walking slowly in the flowers when I saw a large bumblebee flying toward me. It came right up to me, buzzing around as it checked me out, landing and crawling briefly on my binoculars and on my arm. I just stood there until it realized that this big old animal was no threat. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waved my arms.

My biggest scare came last year when I was trying to get close-up pictures of a bald-faced hornet nest that was very low on a tree.

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I did what I had not wanted to do. I disturbed the nest by accidentally hitting the branch that held the nest. A swarm of about 10 nest protectors came storming out. My practice of not moving to show that I am not a threat seemed to work. I just stood there while they flew around me for a while. Then they went back to the nest and I breathed a sigh of relief – and attempted no more pictures of the nest that day.

This posting is in the “since you asked” category. My approach seems to have worked so far, but I know that I might get stung tomorrow by some bee or wasp that just wants me to back off. I respect that.

September 7 Nature Walk

The second of the annual Detroit Audubon field trips to Eliza Howell Park takes place on Saturday, September 7, 2019, starting at 8:00 a.m. The public is invited; there is no cost.

Timed to coincide with the early days of the Fall bird migration, this walk give special attention to birds, especially warblers headed from the North Woods to Central and South America. Depending upon the weather conditions, we are likely to see several warbler species, perhaps including these three. (Thank you to Margaret Weber for these three photos.)

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Black and White Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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American Redstart

The fall warbler migration begins at the end of August and continues into October, with individuals of some 20 different species making short stops at Eliza Howell. The find from one day to the next is almost always different.

If September 7 is a good day, the birds will keep us quite busy, but we will also stop for non-bird observations. This is about the best time of the year to note the variety and nature of spider webs among the wildflowers and the shrubs. They vary in sizes and shape; this is a small one on a thistle.

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September is also the month when I most frequently see a Praying Mantis (or 2 or 3). They have reached maturity and may be seeking mates and/or laying eggs. (I wrote about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” on September 13, 2018.)

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Butterflies continue to be present. One of my favorite late-season butterflies is the Common Buckeye, which makes it appearance in Eliza Howell after the July butterfly peak.

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I usually find several Bald-faced Hornet nests in the park each year, beginning about this time. We may want to stop for a look (through lenses) to watch the hornets enter and exit the hole near the bottom of these amazing constructions. (For more, see “Bald-faced Hornet Nests,” December 12, 2017.)

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Blue Jays migrate in September and many spend days at Eliza Howell harvesting acorns, from the middle of September into October. (For more information, see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018).

September 7 might be a little early to see them at work, but we will check (this photo also courtesy of Margaret Weber).

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The seasons repeat themselves, so it is possible to predict what might be seen at any given time of the year. But it is also true that every day is different and almost every walk includes an element of the unexpected. Such is the nature of nature walks. September 7 should be fun.

Less Frequently Photographed

The appearance of colorful butterflies, birds, and flowers often brings out the camera, but many less visible or less colorful living park features do not get similar attention. During my walks in Eliza Howell Park in the second week of August this year, I have been making an effort to get pictures of some less frequently photographed insects and spiders.

A large number of dragonflies are now flying in the park. It is difficult to get a good image of one since they seem always to be on the move, rarely resting long enough for me to get a picture, but I am beginning to get a few.

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There are, I think, over 300 different species of dragonflies in the United States and Canada and I am not (yet) prepared to attempt species identification of most of those I am seeing. For now, it is enough to see some of the variety and to have a few pictures with enough clarity that some body features can be noted and appreciated. Dragonflies are predators, eating other insects.

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Every year in late summer, I see webs that cover the tips of some tree branches. These “tents” are the home of the larvae (caterpillars) of a moth called Fall Webworm. I hardly ever see the white adult moth, but the tents where the larvae feed on leaves are easy to find. Though the trees lose some leaves, the webworms do not appear to do any long-term damage to the trees.

Since the larvae can usually only be seen within the webs, it is difficult to get a good picture of them. I have not yet done so.

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Grasshoppers are also in abundance in EHP now, especially easy to find along the walking path within the road loop. They are usually seen “hopping” away from where one is walking, not waiting to have their picture taken. I have a little more success finding them at rest in foliage. Grasshoppers are herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves.

The over 600 species are often in shades of brown and/or green. I am just beginning to get a sense of the variety within the park.

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Similar to the case of dragonflies, pictures can help me gain appreciation for some grasshopper features by allowing for close-up looks without catching them.

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August is the beginning of spider web season. Last year — September 20, 2018 — I wrote about the Banded Garden Spider (Banded Argiope) and its orb web. I have now found another orbweaver, the closely related Black and Yellow Garden Spider. It has been present in the same location for days, waiting for insects to get caught in its intricate web largely hidden in the wildflowers.

Large and colorful spiders like this are photogenic, but they are not frequently photographed simply because they are not frequently found.

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I confess that I have also been taking many pictures recently of butterflies and flowers, both of which have been plentiful and brilliant this month so far. But I do not want to neglect those “critters” that I know less well and photograph less frequently. There is so much to observe, to learn, and to admire.

Nature Discovery Day Is July 13

On Saturday, July 13,  there is a great opportunity for visitors to the park to become more familiar with the wildflowers, butterflies, birds, mammals, trees — and more – of Eliza Howell Park: 9:00 – noon. Free and open to everyone.

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There will be exhibits, activities, and options of guided walks designed to point out some of the natural wealth of this Detroit park. The park entrance is on Fenkell east of Telegraph. The event also includes an opportunity to learn more about the U-M wildlife motion-activated camera project (which includes Eliza Howell Park).

Among the highlights of mid-July are the meadow/prairie wildflowers. Among those catching my attention recently are these.

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Clockwise from top left: Foxglove Beardtongue, Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed

The event is organized by Eliza Howell Park Partnership (EHPP), a coalition of persons with different organizational affiliations and a common interest in highlighting Eliza Howell as a place for observing and enjoying nature in an urban environment.

Guides will be present to assist in identifying the varieties of flowers, as well as the specific species of butterflies they attract. These are among the common butterflies at this time of the year.

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Clockwise from top left: Monarch, Common Ringlet, Red Admiral, Pearl Crescent.

While I am often unable to get a picture of a butterfly I see, it is never difficult to find flowers waiting to be photographed.

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Clockwise from top left: Staghorn Sumac, Chicory, Wild Bergamot, St John’s Wort.

Eliza Howell is the kind of nature park it is, in significant part, because the Rouge River runs through it. For those who wish to take it on Saturday, a short walk to the footbridge provides a good view of the shaded river.

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Back in the field, one flower not to be missed is Wild Bergamot, a mint family flower, sometimes called beebalm, that has only recently begun its summer blooming season. It is a magnet for a variety of insects. In this picture, the visitor is a Hummingbird Moth.

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Many mammals are more active at night than during the day. The cameras used in the UM wildlife camera project have located and identified some of the mammals of the night, as will be reported on July 13.

Two that I have recently seen during the day are White-tailed Deer and Groundhog.

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I thank EHPP for providing this opportunity to witness and enjoy the natural wealth of the park.

 

A Damselfly in Sunshine: Ebony Jewelwing

On some of these days in Eliza Howell Park, I can be tempted to avoid going to the river woodland because of the active mosquitoes. This is also the season of the Ebony Jewelwing, however, and the presence of this damselfly has lately been providing me with all the incentive I need to go to the near-river habitat, despite the mosquitoes.

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Damselflies are characterized by very large eyes (in proportion to the head) and a long thin abdomen. Ebony Jewelwing is a quite large damselfly, about 2 inches in length, and is the most common damselfly in EHP, based on my observations.

The size of the eyes always gets my attention.

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The adults that I watch are found fairly close to the river (though sometimes up to 100 yards away). The early stage of life is aquatic. They lay eggs on plant debris in slow-moving water and, after the eggs hatch, the young (known as naiads) spend the first part of their development in the water.

The adults often seek out leaves in one of the few sunny spots found in this habitat, and here I watch. The males and females are distinctively different. The male, pictured above, has dark wings with an iridescent green body. The most distinctive feature of the female is the white spot near the end of the each wing.

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Damselflies are carnivores, both in the larval stage in the water and in the adult flying stage. I watched this female eating another insect.

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A beginning bug watcher quickly learns the difference between damselflies and dragonflies, their near relatives. Both have 2 sets of wings and a long body. It is easiest to tell the difference when the insect is at rest. Dragonflies hold their wings out perpendicular to their bodies while damselflies hold their wings together across their backs.

Here is a resting dragonfly. They have even larger eyes.

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Dragonflies used to get more of my attention than damselflies. But that was before I came to know that Ebony Jewelwings are often resting (ready to be observed) in sunny spots close to the river near the end of June.

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The Call of Coreopsis

In the middle of June I find myself drawn repeatedly to the patches of Coreopsis now scattered in the fields of Eliza Howell Park.

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Coreopsis, also known as Tickseed (a name based on the shape of the seed), is one of the flowers more often called by its Latin name than its English name.*

Coreopsis is a native American wildflower, about 2 feet tall. Each stem has just one flower at the top. The flower has 8 petals, each normally having 4 lobes at the tip.

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I am called to the concentrations of coreopsis in two ways. 

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The first is simply to admire and enjoy the flowers. The second is to check out the visiting insects. Coreopsis calls to them also.

On a recent walk, I came across a Black Swallowtail and a Painted Lady.

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The meadow flowers of the summer provide the best opportunity of the year for insect watching in Eliza Howell and the season starts with Coreopsis. Here are a few I noted in the last couple days.

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The weather has been cool for June, but the silent call of the Coreopsis is signaling the beginning of summertime nature walks, featuring blooming meadow wildflowers and a fascinating variety of insects.

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* For those interested in the meaning of the name: The Latin word “coreopsis” itself describes the shape of the seed, taken from two Greek words meaning “bug” and “appearance.” Most of us, however, don’t think of the meaning of the Greek root words when we think or say “coreopsis.”

 

 

Praying and Preying: Those Two Front Legs

I hadn’t seen a Praying Mantis all year in Eliza Howell Park until last week. Now I have found three. The species is Chinese Praying Mantis, the larger of the two species found in Michigan, about 3 and ½ inches long.

It often takes careful searching – or just happening to look in the right place at the right time – to find the camouflaged insect.

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They are called “praying” because of their habit of holding their front legs together in front of them, similar to a praying position some humans assume. This posture can be seen in the next picture, taken from the front.

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The Chinese Praying Mantis was introduced in this country in the late 1800s to help control unwanted insects, having long been recognized as very effective in catching and consuming many different insects.

The mantis is an ambush predator. Part of the feeding strategy is camouflage. The shape and color make them difficult to see when they climb small limbs. This one was positioned head down.

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Its “praying” position is also part of its hunting strategy. It can remain motionless for hours, if necessary, until prey comes close. Then it strikes with great speed. The same front legs that remind people of praying are extremely effective in preying.

Note the differences between the front legs and the other four.

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Mantises are carnivores. They eat insects (all kinds) and spiders, and sometimes small frogs and birds. They even eat other mantises. At times, the female eats the male that mates with her!

The front legs have spines (spikes) that assist in grasping prey, which they then eat alive.

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Mantises usually mate in September or early October and the female lays eggs which, as an egg mass in a case, survive the winter and hatch in the spring (May or June). The adults I saw these last few days have probably only recently reached full maturity. That fact, and the need to find a mate, may account for them being more visible at this time of the year.

It is always exciting to find a Praying Mantis in a park or garden. It is attractive, a little exotic, and has a very interesting life history. They can even look somewhat harmless…

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…but those front legs are deadly to other insects.