Native Puzzler

I saw the puzzle at a used book sale. My kids are old, I am old, I don’t work at a school anymore, but I really, really wanted that preschool puzzle.

First, I showed it to my Middle Schooler. “Please tell me not to buy this gorgeous puzzle from 1975.” 

“Put it back,” he said, putting it back.

Then, I texted a photo to my friend Taunia, and added the same (disingenuous) demand: “Please tell me not to buy this gorgeous puzzle from 1975.”

And Taunia answered, “How could you NOT!?”

– – –

I bought it.

The heft; the vivid colors; the high gloss; the sawblade’s single, running cut; the satisfying sound of a wooden shape finding its place, “chonk!”: all called to me.

But what screamed to me was this: all the puzzle pieces are creatures native to Tennessee. I don’t know what the puzzle was meant to demonstrate (Cute Wildlife?) or how it was categorized in the 1975 Judy / Instructo catalog, but for me, the puzzle shows examples of Native Tennessee Wildlife: two insects, two birds, an amphibian, and a mammal. 

at the booksale

I’ve identified everyone. From top, clockwise:

  • Monarch butterfly / Danaus plexippus
  • Great horned owl / Bubo virginianus
  • Pickerel frog / Lithobates palustris
  • Convergent lady beetle / Hippodamia convergens
  • Eastern grey squirrel / Sciurus carolinensis 
  • Carolina wren / Thryothorus ludovicianus 

All are crucial members of our ecosystem, our watershed, our foodwebs! 

Of course, they are crucial members in states other than mine, but I’m a Tennessee Naturalist, and my focus stays local. 

– – –

The two creatures who were a challenge to identify (and therefore the most fun):

  1. Pickerel frog.
    I don’t see amphibians in our neighborhood, so I had to look this one up at Tennessee Watchable Wildlife. Here is the detail that cinched it: “…characterized by distinctive square spots in two rows down the back.”

    Pickerel frog (see the double row of squares?)
  2. Convergent lady beetle.
    Convergent lady beetle

    I had to do a lot of squinting at this lady beetle. I looked at resources here and there and came up with “Convergent lady beetle:” a native insect in decline. These have 6 discrete spots per wing cover and a combined blob of a spot where the covers meet near the head, which add up to the “full complement of 13 spots,” as described at BugGuide.
    And see the puzzle piece’s two white dealies that look like cartoon eyes? The dealies are what’s meant by a “pronotum with two white dashes angled towards each other forming a ‘V’” pattern,” as per the description at Bugwood wiki. 

    I don’t know I’ve ever met a Convergent lady beetle. Have you? When you or I see a random “ladybug” in the yard or wherever, it’s probably not going to be a Convergent or any of our native species. It’s probably going to be the exotic species known as the Multicolored Asian lady beetle, which can be yellow or red or orange and even black, and can have zero spots or plenty. These are the ones who swarm in autumn and try to sqwoonch their way inside warm buildings, and who show up as Ladybug Storms on weather radar, and who, when you are trying to stroll through Warner Park’s tree meadow in peace, will bite you and poop on you and fly into your mouth (hopefully not all at the same time). 

    The Asian beetles were introduced to the U.S. to control pests and then themselves became pests.

    iNaturalist suggestions

    Just for fun, I wondered if the citizen scientist app iNaturalist would agree my puzzle piece was a Convergent Lady Beetle. So, I cropped my photo and started to upload it—pretending I had a real, live beetle to ID—and stopped at the stage where the app generates a list of possible species. On the list, “Convergent” was number seven. Number one was, no surprise: “Asian.”  But honestly, Asian is the most commonly spotted (so to speak) nearly anywhere, as it is outcompeting our native species and even directly preying upon them.

– – –

I’m hoping my teaching days aren’t over, and I’ll be able to use my pretty puzzle. Maybe I’ll add it to my Show and Tell trays if I staff a booth at some public event, while I chat up strangers about WHY “native” matters and WHAT we can do to save the world by saving the bit of the world right outside our doors. 

I could point to my puzzle and say, sweetly, “Here’s who dies from your lawncare.”

I could say, “Here’s who is starved and poisoned by your weekly lawn crew; and your pesticides, herbicides, and petroleum fertilizers. Here’s who suffers when you tidy every fall leaf into a bag, and every fall flower stem in a bag; and when you install automatic sprinklers to coddle your exotic turfgrass and which, incidentally drowns nearby trees who aren’t meant to have wet roots and bark every single day all spring, summer and fall. And here’s who starves when you buy another boxwood or crepe-myrtle or English laurel rather than any native flower, vine, fern, shrub or tree.

I could.
I might.
Because of a preschool puzzle Taunia said I couldn’t not buy.


– – –


Lady Beetle Notes:

I love this handy two-page color field guide for ladybug ID, exotic and native, from an Ohio bioblitz.

Here’s some interesting drawings of Convergent variations at Discover Life. 

And here’s a good Convergent lady beetle page from the University of Florida.

And if you haven’t read about the Lost Ladybug Project, please do. It’s a citizen science project anyone can join.

By the way, I’m saying lady beetle rather than lady bug because I’m trying to be educational and help spread the word that ladybugs are not “true” bugs—not members of the order Hemiptera—but are true beetles—members of the order Coleoptera.
On the other hand, the worthy Lost Ladybug Project can say Ladybug all day long, and more power to them. They need to say ladybug so everyone knows what they are talking about. After all, no one sings “LadyBeetle, LadyBeetle, fly away home . . . “

AND LOOK! My husband brought home a little insect book for me yesterday and right there on the cover is a Convergent lady beetle! I wouldn’t have known what it was had I not already puzzled the puzzle. The 13 spots, the two white dealies again!

I don’t understand why it is as satisfying to identify “realistic” specimens as it is to identify “real” specimens, but I will take my fun where I find it.

Convergent lady beetle