Summertime is insect time. Unfortunately, stinging and biting species such as wasps and mosquitoes get most of our attention for all the wrong reasons. Many insects are beneficial, and most are benign.
My favorite summer insects are hummingbird moths. I know they have begun to emerge because digital images from readers arrive almost daily.
Hummingbird moths are fuzzy bee mimics. They have antenna and a long proboscis, and they hover at flowers while sipping nectar, just like hummingbirds. But their antennae make them insects.
Clearwing hummingbird moths are among the smallest and most common of these fascinating insects. Approach slowly and observe carefully to see the proboscis uncoil as the moth approaches a flower to nectar. The transparent wings will be obvious.
Another common hummingbird moth is known by the name of its caterpillar and is probably most familiar to gardeners. Tomato hornworms are fat, green, fleshy caterpillars that eat tomatoes and their leaves, and eventually transform into five-spotted hawk-moths.
Sometimes hornworms are covered with tiny white capsules. These are pupal cases of tiny wasps that parasitized the caterpillars. By the time the wasps pupate, the hornworm will be dead. The larval wasps consumed the hornworm from the inside before emerging to pupate.
Butterflies are best known for their grace and beauty. Tiger swallowtails and fritillaries are abundant this summer, but I have yet to see a single monarch. Heat, drought and herbicides destroy milkweed plants in the Plains and Midwest, and monarch need milkweeds. Milkweeds are their only host plant.
Fireflies or lightning bugs evoke fond memories in anyone raised in the country. At dusk they emerge and light the backyard with their Morse code flashes of bioluminescence. The darker the night, the more impressive the show.
Fireflies flash to attract mates. Each species has a unique flash pattern. At dusk, males take flight and begin flashing. When a female of the same species recognizes the appropriate pattern, she flashes back in recognition. Ultimately the male finds the female, and the pair mates.
This communication system is easy to test. Study the flash patterns of the fireflies in your backyard. Mimic the female's pattern (the one in the grass) with a flashlight and see if a male approaches in search of a receptive female.