Q. I was in my garden and saw a brown creature, larger than a bumblebee but smaller than a hummingbird, with a brown beak. It was darting about, drinking nectar from my flowers. Can you tell me what this was?
A. You were observing a member of a family of moths known as Sphingidae, according to Philip Clausen, curator of insects at the University of Minnesota. These insects, also known as hawk moths or hummingbird moths, look and act a lot like hummingbirds. They have long, coiled mouthparts, which they unroll and use like soda straws to suck up nectar from flowers.
Q. What is the highest point in the Twin Cities?
A. According to DNR GIS operations supervisor Tim Loesch, the highest point in the seven-county metro area is a hilltop, 1,214 feet above sea level, just southeast of Elko in Scott County.
Q. Last September I saw something swimming with its head above water, about the size of a man's fist. It was golden green and looked like a fish head. Is there a fish that swims with its head out of the water, or was it a turtle?
A. DNR herpetologist Carol Hall thinks you probably spied the head of a big snapping turtle. Snapping turtles, which can live more than 30 years and grow bigger than a hubcap, are a species of special concern in Minnesota. They spend much of their time in water where they bask just below the surface and search for food such as crayfish, insects, worms, snakes, and fish. When in the water, snapping turtles are shy and will avoid encounters with humans. But on land they become very defensive and can cause great pain with their powerful jaws.
Q. My husband was jogging through the woods at dusk near Lake Johanna at my father's home in Arden Hills. When he came back, his bare chest was full of small black bugs. As he rubbed them off, they left little bloody spots. What were they?
A. Your husband was having a close encounter with black flies. According to University of Minnesota extension entomologist Jeffrey Hahn, these tiny flies develop as larvae in moving water but can fly as far as 10 miles inland once they emerge as adults. They are most active a couple of hours before sunrise and after sunset, and are most common in Minnesota in May and June.
Black flies eat nectar. Female black flies also eat blood. They slice a hole in their victim's skin and then lap up the blood that wells into the wound. Their saliva contains compounds that prevent clotting. Some people barely react to black fly bites, while others experience extensive pain and swelling.
Q. While I was fishing the Minnesota River last summer, I noticed a piece of dark fishing line about 6 inches long that appeared to be swimming along in about 2 inches of water. I then figured out it was a water creature of some kind. I fished it out of the water with a stick and noticed it had a head and tail. It moved about for a few minutes, then dried up and appeared to expire. What was it?
A. DNR aquatic invertebrate biologist Gary Montz suspects you were studying a horsehair worm. These worms grow to be 6 to 8 inches long and look like a shiny black string. The larvae develop inside an insect such as a cricket or grasshopper, then bore their way out when the insect falls into the water. Horsehair worms don't hurt fish or people.
Long ago people believed that horsehair worms appeared when a horse's hair fell into the water and mysteriously came alive. These creatures are also sometimes called gordian worms, because they can interloop themselves into a knot reminiscent of the famous Gordian knot of Greek legend.
Q. I have a lot of squirrels in my yard. A few are losing hair around their necks. Is this fatal and nature's way of controlling population?
A. The squirrels probably have a bit of mange, says wildlife educator Jan Welsh. Mange is caused by a type of mite that invades the hair follicles of the skin. Fortunately for your squirrels, it's not deadly. "The squirrels will just look like they are having bad hair days for a while," Welsh says.