Thursday, April 20, 2017

Breaking: Mexican Silverspot Butterfly Sighted in Colorado

Right place, right time, and with a little help from your friends. That is how discoveries are made. All of those factors came together to verify the spotting of a Mexican Silverspot butterfly, Dione moneta on the eastern edge of Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 18, 2017.

Sharon Milito is a geology lecturer at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and a retired Colorado Springs School district eleven teacher. She has also been a volunteer with the city for ten years, doing paleontology surveys and acting as a science education consultant. She has, in her volunteer capacity, access to places not open to the public, including Jimmy Camp Creek Park on the very eastern edge of the city.

Sharon and I went scouting on Tuesday, April 18, and she took me to specific locations that seem to have a slightly greater biological diversity in the sprawling former ranch. It is a unique composite of many different habitats including mostly shortgrass prairie punctuated with sandstone bluffs. Some of the bluffs are covered in Ponderosa Pine forest. There is also Jimmy Camp Creek itself, a drainage fed by numerous springs within the property. There is almost always water in the creek, and some surprisingly deep pools in the sandstone bed. Otherwise, lots of mud trampled by cattle that still graze the park.

One of the areas we went to boasted a grove of wild plum, Prunus americana, in full bloom. It was like walking into a fairy tale. Hundreds of butterflies were sipping nectar from the blossoms. Most were Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, but there were also Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milbertis), Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus), Marine Blue (Leptotes marina), and several Monarchs (Danaus plexippus). Most of the Monarchs seem to have had a rough migration up from the south. The whole morning scene was mesmerizing and enchanting.

Eventually, Sharon called me over to ask "what about this one here?" and pointed out a butterfly that had me perplexed initially. At first I thought it was a Variegated Fritillary, which would be expected at this time of year. The wing shape was a little odd, though, and when I glimpsed the underside, it was studded with large, silver spots. Wow, a Gulf Fritillary. That is not a very common butterfly in these parts. I got several images of the insect and we went our merry way. Later, I posted what I thought was our somewhat significant find to the Facebook group "Arthropods Colorado" for more folks to enjoy.

Enter Robb Hannawacker. He raised the stakes substantially higher by proposing that the butterfly was in fact a Mexican Silverspot, Dione moneta. I was embarrassed to admit that until he mentioned it I was not even aware of the species at all, let alone where it is supposed to occur. Robb mentioned the identifying markings, and how our specimen matched them, and it is now pretty obvious that is what we have.

According to my copy of the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, the Mexican Silverspot "Strays to south Texas, rarely to southwest and Big Bend region. More at home in mid-elevation tropical woodlands but reported to breed sporadically in lower Rio Grande Valley....Recorded late spring to late fall (multiple broods in Mexico." The butterfly['s normal range extends from Mexico through Central America to Brazil. The larval foodplants are passion vines, which do not occur in Colorado.

The most recent northern record for the species in the online database of Butterflies and Moths of North America was on May 8, 2005 in Roosevelt County, New Mexico, by Christopher Rustay. As near as I can tell, this is the first record for Colorado, at least of recent vintage. Please alert me to additional historical records. Thank you. Now, go forth and see what amazing species you can find.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Jeers for Cheerios? Not so Fast

I am not sure whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that politics and consumerism are infiltrating the world of entomology, but in the case of General Mills versus....science, controversy could be a good thing if it informs the cereal-buying public. The well-intentioned corporate advertising campaign aimed at benefiting pollinators has hit a few snags, and the ramifications for future like-minded endeavors are complex. Partnerships with conservation organizations are, however, an excellent outcome.

© Creativity-online.com

When the Honey Nut Cheerios® mascot "Buzz the Bee" disappeared from the cereal box to call attention to the plight of honey bees (and ostensibly the decline of all pollinators), it seemed like a genius marketing gimmick. Add the promise of receiving a packet of "wildflower" seeds to sow in your garden if you simply request them, and you have a win-win-win love affair at first blush. Who could object to stimulating environmentally-friendly action on behalf of imperiled insects like the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, just added to the Endangered Species List? Well, it turns out that knowledgeable botanists and entomologists can object, and do so strenuously and effectively.

The major problem stems from the seed packets that General Mills is dispensing, in partnership with Veseys Seeds. They are a "one size fits all" solution to a complex problem, and therefore no solution at all according to many scientists weighing in. There have been charges that certain flowers in the seed mix are not only not native to North America, but invasive species in some areas. Homeowners are certainly better off purchasing native cultivars at their local nursery, if only because native plants are better suited to local soils and regional climate.

Another frequent complaint directed at virtually all pro-bee propaganda is that the sole intended beneficiary is the honey bee. Apiculture, it could be argued convincingly, is an industry, complete with large scale marketing, lobbyists, and other attendant business arms. The honey bee is not native, having been brought to the settlement of Jamestown in 1621 or 1622. Today, migrant beekeepers truck their hives across the country to pollinate various orchard crops, especially almonds. While Honey Nut Cheerios™ contains no nuts, it does contain "natural almond flavor." Interesting.

This is not to say that General Mills is without good deeds for pollinators in...general. Check this out, from personal correspondence with my friend Matthew Shepherd, Communications director for the Xerces Society, a non-profit organization devoted to invertebrate conservation:

"GM [General Mills] is partnering with the NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture] to support a half-dozen new staff biologists, who will be employed by Xerces and based in NRCS offices. GM and the NRCS have each committed to providing $2 million—a total of $4 million—over a 5-year period. You’ll find more information about what the staff will do and where they’ll be based at here. For an overview of the partnership, and the press release, [click on the links].

"We’ve [Xerces] got other partnerships with various GM brands (Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, Annie’s), but any dollars from those, often tied to sales of a product, will be part of the $2 million above.

"Xerces also has a contract with GM to work with their suppliers to create habitat on farms. We’ve already done some of this in California, planting hedgerows along tomato fields and hedgerows and meadows in almond orchards, and in Washington around blueberries, but this will be spreading across the country to farms supplying all manner of products. This is another multi-year agreement. I’m afraid that I don’t know what the total dollar amount will be over the years. Hundreds of thousands for sure...."

I happen to like General Mills and Cascadian Farms products, so I am happy to be benefiting the Xerces Society when I make those purchases. I am also glad that I learned what is going on behind the headlines, which were far from flattering initially. Meanwhile, my next post will revisit a workshop I attended back in March that speaks to the future of pollinator conservation at the homeowner-level. Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Predator and Prey: Ants versus "Lions" and "Tigers"

My last post here chronicled predation on termites by ants in the wake of swarming events in my neighborhood. Today I shall turn the tables and demonstrate that ants are not immune to predators themselves. Antlions and tiger beetles are among the few predatory insects that kill and eat ants. Ants can bite, and either sting, or spray formic acid to defend themselves. One cannot blame a potential predator for avoiding that kind of trauma when ants are not much more than an hors d' oeuvres anyway.

Antlion pit of Myrmeleon sp. larva

While looking for tiger beetles in Lake Pueblo State Park, Colorado on March 18, I was surprised to find the funnel trap of an antlion larva in the middle of a game trail. Usually, the pitfall traps of antlions are clustered, and situated in sheltered areas like beneath a rock overhang, at the base of a tree, or other location where rain seldom if ever reaches them. Since the only genus of antlions in the U.S. that makes such traps is Myrmeleon, I knew that had to be the critter lurking at the bottom of the pit.

Antlion larva from Kansas

Buried just beneath the dusty sand was a single, chubby larva, studded with spines on various parts of its body, and with menacing sickle-like jaws. Nearly blind, the insect relies on its sensitivity to vibration to detect potential trouble or potential prey. When an ant or other terrestrial insect blunders into the antlion's steep-walled trap, the larva becomes alert and proactive. It may use those jaws to fling sand onto its victim, hastening its descent to the bottom of the funnel. The predator then grabs its prey and injects it with enzymes that paralyze it and begin the digestive process.

Adult antlion, Myrmeleon exitialis from Colorado

Antlions go through complete metamorphosis, so the larva eventually constructs a cocoon of sand and silk in which it pupates. An adult antlion, more than making up for its youthful ugliness with its delicate wings and slender body, emerges from the pupa at a later date.

Blowout Tiger Beetle, Cicindela lengi, attacking a harvester ant

The fate of ants in the jaws of an antlion may seem morbid, but it is still better than what happens to ants caught by adult tiger beetles. After two consecutive days of unsuccessful searching for tiger beetles closer to home in Colorado Springs, I finally found at least three Blowout Tiger Beetles, Cicindela lengi, on the afternoon of March 23. I was witness to their ability to swiftly dispatch lone worker ants with their huge, toothy jaws.

Open wide....

Most tiger beetle species are agile daytime hunters that haunt sandy habitats like the sandhill bordering the vacant lot where I found these specimens. The insects run quickly, stop, then run again. They fly a short distance if spooked by a potential predator. Their eyesight is keen, vastly more sensitive to motion than a person; but they focus slowly. They literally outrun their eyesight when pursuing prey, and must stop to refocus before rejoining the chase. This herky-jerky hunting strategy is still effective, and few insects spotted by a tiger beetle will live to tell the tale.

Off with its head!

Tiger beetles appear to have the speed and power to attack insects and other invertebrates at least as large as they are, but most of their victims are quite small. Ants seem to be near the limit of what they will take. They make short work of even the feisty Western Harvester Ants, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, that are abundant in Colorado Springs. The jaws of the beetle quickly dismember the ant, leaving a trail of carnage around the beetle. The beetle's next victim may be a tiny, unidentifiable invertebrate it plucks from between sand grains.

Another C. lengi surrounded by the remains of its Formica sp. ant lunch

Most tiger beetle enthusiasts are fond of remarking that they are glad tiger beetles do not get any larger in size than they do. Indeed, I would not be prowling around dunes and beaches if there were even raccoon-sized tiger beetles in the neighborhood. Since they are much smaller than that, I recommend going in search of them. Their beauty and behaviors are sure to capture your curiosity and sense of wonder.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Predator and Prey: Ants versus Termites

My neighborhood walk in Colorado Springs the other day, March 25, was like strolling through living confetti at some points. All the local termite colonies were launching swarms of winged males and potential queens (alates as scientists call them). The frail creatures were not ignored by other animals, either, especially ants. Closer inspection of the swarms revealed three species of ants preying on them.

Alate subterranean termites (Reticulitermes sp.) swarming

Termite swarms are not an indication of the impending collapse of your home or any other wooden structure. Yet, that is the first thought that enters the mind of the average person witnessing the spectacle. Such is the power of advertising for pest control companies. Now, a termite swarm inside your home should probably be cause for alarm. Outdoors, subterranean termites like these Reticulitermes sp. are vital to the recycling of decaying wood. They nest in the soil, as their common name suggests, and forage for wood and other dry cellulose in contact with the soil.

The synchronous nature of termite swarms is a marvel. All colonies in a given area need to liberate their reproductive castes at the same time in order to prevent inbreeding, but I have no idea how they "decide" when to do this. The day before we had snow and high winds. The alates issue from the tiniest of cracks in the soil, like toothpaste from the tube, the better to avoid easy detection. Eventually, enough of the insects appear that their gauzy wings reflect the sun and give away their presence. Soldier termites, and workers, too, escort them out and see them off.

Alate termites with workers and soldier (center) escorts

Hundreds, if not thousands, of winged termites begin filling the air. Few will survive the alert eyes and hungry mouths of birds, lizards, and other predators. The early season timing of swarms may in fact be tuned to precede the emergence of reptiles and the arrival of migrant birds. Ants, on the other hand, are already on the prowl.

Worker Formica sp. ant carrying termite prey

Both ants and termites are social insects, so it is fitting they would be deadly enemies and, one would think, well-matched foes. Watching one swarm happen on the edge of a driveway, I began noticing the appearance of worker ants, Formica sp., crossing the driveway. Eventually I saw one toting a winged termite back to the nest. The ant's nest. More ants followed suit.

Pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) killing alate termite (bottom) and worker termite (top)

Turning my attention back to where the termites were emerging, I noticed something even more frightening. Tiny "pavement ants," Tetramorium sp., were killing both alates and worker termites right at the termite nest opening. Whereas Formica ants are a bit larger than the termites, the pavement ants were smaller than their prey. How they avoided the menacing jaws of the soldier termites confounds me.

Formica ants near the entrance to their nest, with prey

Just up the street I noticed heavy ant activity originating at the base of a brick-and-mortar mailbox pillar. These were Formica pallidefulva ants, but appeared larger than the other ones I saw previously. It soon became apparent that they were also taking part in the Great Termite Massacre of 2017. Most of them were carrying wingless alates, though.

Ants (Formica pallidefulva) with termite prey

Alate termites, once paired, shed their wings easily. Both pairs of wings have a weak spot that allows the termites to break them off so they can quickly seek cover. The male ("king") termite follows on the heels of his mate (queen) as they form a two-car train in search of a potential nest site. They must do so quickly if they are to avoid the marauding ants.

Dealate queen with her mate trailing her in a "train"

Whether the honey pot ants were taking dealate (wingless reproductives) termites, or just seizing winged individuals and breaking off their wings, remains a mystery. They are certainly easier to transport without those cumbersome wings.

Worker Formica sp. ant carrying termite prey

As I turned the corner to go home, I caught sight of yet another ant, possibly Formica podzolica. It, too, was carrying a defeated termite. The ant seemed at least somewhat disoriented, and I eventually lost track of it in the thick grass at the edge of the curb.

So, termites are both integral to keeping soils fertile with their decomposition activities, and also a bounty for many other organisms that depend on them for food when other insect life is less plentiful. Ants are the lion kings and wolf packs of the macroscopic landscape, keeping termites and other insects from overrunning the planet. The ants are not immune, though, and in my next post we see them on the other end of the predator-prey equation.

Note: Special thanks to James C. Trager for identification of the ant species.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Identity Denial

Note: This is what you must know about me at this point in my life. I appreciate your respect of that.

There is no such thing as an identity crisis; or if there is, then it is precipitated by a long history of identity denial. Failure to embrace who one truly is inevitably results in resentment, and even hostility toward others. How to reinvent oneself is then the challenge.

I am a writer, a communicator. There was a time I thought I wanted to be a scientist because I felt that was the only path to achieving credibility. The non-fiction writers I admired were also scientists, so it seemed the logical course of action was to enroll in college with a scientific major. So, off to Oregon State University I went, where there was comfort in already knowing some of the faculty and staff who were my mentors earlier in life. Since I honestly do have an affinity for insects and related creatures, I declared entomology as my major.

There were immediate signs that this was not a good idea. I failed mathematics courses. I floundered in chemistry, and avoided physics and statistics. Academia does not reward you for simply having an interest in science. In fact, it punishes you. Higher education tries to break you of empathy and sentimentality for other organisms. Anthropomorphism, the assignment of human emotions to other animals, is banished from the lab, and even from field observations. Ecosystems are abstracted into "models," poor paper substitutes for flesh and blood. Entire landscapes are reduced to soil profiles.

I should have left the sciences for an English or communications major right then and there. Instead I moved over to the School of Forestry where I majored in Recreation Resource Management, where park naturalists earn their cred. I retained entomology as a minor. I excelled at natural history interpretation, but only tolerated, if not struggled with, other subjects. That fourth year was my last. I dropped out with a feeling of emptiness, and certainly an empty bank account.

Despite my lack of an academic degree, I have held professional positions as an entomologist. The Oregon Zoo and Cincinnati Zoo both employed me in their insect exhibits. I worked on a private contract at the Smithsonian Institution, helping catalog the national butterfly collection for a month in 1986. Subsequently, I have had other contracts with the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. These jobs paid adequately, if not handsomely, but were mostly unfulfilling in every other regard. Today, there are enough rules and roadblocks that it is impossible for me to be employed this way again anyway. The job application process in general, for almost any position, is so weighted toward exclusion that it is demoralizing and not worth the effort to apply for many of the best potential candidates.

Meanwhile, I persisted in my own efforts to cultivate credibility, and build a following as a trusted expert in the world of popular entomology. At this I have succeeded too well. Actors call it typecasting: Having performed one role so well that they can no longer find work for any other role. Convincing people that I can write about topics other than "bugs" is an excruciatingly slow process, and as I age the sense of urgency only magnifies, and the sense of resentment at my own previous denial of who I am intensifies. Naturally, this expresses itself inappropriately, and I now find myself sighing heavily whenever a stranger asks "Hey, aren't you that 'bug guy'?" At times I want to slap them upside the head.

I will always have an interest in insects, and always be willing to help people educate themselves about the "smaller majority," as entomologist Piotr Naskrecki calls them. However, that is not the sole aspect of my identity and I ask you kindly to respect that. Should you want to follow my Sense of Misplaced blog, even better; and if you can help me find paying markets for my personal essays and social commentary, then you have my eternal appreciation. Thank you.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Honey, I lost the Trox

I was a bit too cavalier the other day in allowing a hide beetle, Trox sp., to relax on the lid of the vial I had it in, on the table while I was taking images of a couple of wolf spiders in a casserole dish we have sacrificed for "studio shots" of various small creatures. Wow, that one sentence says a lot, doesn't it? Well, naturally, when I turned back for the beetle, it was nowhere to be found. It got me thinking about what kinds of things the spouse of an entomologist never wants to hear.

Have you seen me? Trox beetle

Hide beetles, members of the family Trogidae, are innocuous enough. They want nothing to do with us until we are dead. No, really dead. Dried-up dead. Mummified dead. Extra crispy with a few tufts of hair remaining. They come to carcasses after pretty much every other insect has left the scene convinced that nothing of any nutritional value remains. Still, having a normally outdoor insect crawling or flying around the house can be disconcerting. It is certainly not part of most people's "normal" experience.

There is going to be no finding it again unless it raises its profile significantly, which Trox beetles are not prone to do. No amount of "Have you seen me?" posters in every room is going to help, even though it is an adult insect. I understand you cannot even report one missing until it has been gone for a minimum of twenty-four hours. Juvenile insects are even worse. You have to do age progression drawings because metamorphosis changes them so drastically that they become unrecognizable after only a few weeks, sometimes a few days.

Age progression of mosquitoes, also known as "life cycle"

Luckily, the beetle is harmless. I suppose even the most tolerant of roommates and spouses would blow a gasket if their arachnologically-inclined cohabitant suddenly asked "Have you seen my black widow?" This kind of announcement is usually followed by something like "Hey, Where is everybody going (at such a high rate of speed)?" The kids losing a gerbil probably warrants an eye-roll, but just one little venomous organism on the loose and you'd think it was grounds for divorce.

I am fortunate. My wife hardly bats an eye whenever I confess to mishandling some bug that results in it suddenly roaming freely, usually in the vicinity of the kitchen. On more than one occasion she has yelled over to me "Hey, I found your (insert name of fugitive spider or insect here)!" There are also times when she assumes the critter on the counter is something that escaped captivity. If that is not the case then we are both surprised, and not usually in a good way.

Lynx spider on the stove: Nope, not mine

One word of advice to others like myself: It is w-a-a-a-y better to admit your negligence before she is suddenly confronted with the vagrant creature without prior knowledge of its escape. You know that skillet that is always on the stovetop? Yeah? Ok, then you understand that it can be used against both you and the spider.

The worst reception I ever received from my wife was when I enthusiastically related to her over the phone that "the lab guy we met the other day came over with a jar full of bed bugs....in all life stages!" Hello?....The life of an entomological blogger is fraught with exactly these kinds of dilemmas. You need to do that post on bed bugs, and you need images to go with it. I mean, they can't climb out of the porcelain casserole dish....Can they?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Big Bug Hunt and How You Can Help

Last year in early October, I was approached by Jeremy Dore, founder of the company Growing Interactive, based in the United Kingdom. He was interested in having me collaborate in one of the company's major citizen science projects, "The Big Bug Hunt." He made a convincing enough argument that I signed on last month as one of the U.S. liaisons. What follows is a description of this ingenious endeavor; and how you can help, and benefit from, participating.

The Big Bug Hunt wants your Japanese Beetle sightings!

The aim of The Big Bug Hunt is to build a database that will be used to create a computer application which predicts with great accuracy the emergence of various pest insects in very localized areas. For example, if you have a vegetable garden in Raleigh, North Carolina, you will be able to receive a "reverse 9-1-1" alerting you to the possibility that squash bugs may be descending on your plot within days or weeks. You can then take preventative action now, and avoid using chemical controls later.

The technology that synthesizes this data and turns it into a predictive model is a facet of the discipline called machine learning systems. It means that computers are able to find patterns that humans cannot see. From what I understand, this technology is already applied to large scale agriculture. The goal of Growing Interactive and its subordinate projects like Grow Veg, is to provide the same kind of software tools to individual citizens and community garden personnel to insure their own success in meeting the collective mission of local food security.

The Big Bug Hunt can already predict some aphid emergences with precision

Growing Interactive is a family enterprise for Jeremy, his wife, and their friends; and they take great pride in serving the greater good. Jeremy decided to apply his background in app programming to farming more than ten years ago after his job as a network manager for a group of schools ended. What he has created since then is astonishing in its success. Growing Interactive enjoys the respect and collaboration of academic institutions like the University of York (England), for example.

The Big Bug Hunt is global in scope, but it has gotten off to its best start in the U.S.A. and the U.K. More data is needed, however, to facilitate better accuracy in predicting when common pests like the Japanese Beetle are likely to appear at a given locality. This is where you come in. Simply going to the website, or even clicking on the "Report a Pest" button at the top of my sidebar, will allow you to quickly report any insect, other arthropod, or even a slug or snail that you see in your yard or garden. It is that simple, no registration necessary. Reputational analysis will eventually weigh data according to accuracy, so no observation goes to waste.

Squash bugs are on the "hit list," too

With our ever-changing climate and landscape, a dynamic reporting and recording system like this is vital to every level of agricultural productivity, be it corporate or your own backyard vegetable garden. It will not work, however, without your willingness to contribute. Please consider adding your "two bugs worth," and I promise to keep you abreast of the latest developments here on my blog. Thanks!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Another Odd Carrion Beetle

I do not know what it says about our field excursions this year, or the state of our local fauna, or the state of our country, that we are finding carrion beetles to be the most interesting creatures we have observed so far. Case in point is the Western Spinach Carrion Beetle, Aclypea bituberosa, spotted by Heidi on Monday, February 20. We were walking the Front Range Trail in Clear Spring Ranch park, an El Paso County, Colorado park when we crossed paths with this unique beetle.

I happen to like spinach, especially fresh spinach, so I was disappointed to learn that the Western Spinach Carrion Beetle is considered an occasional pest of that plant. The adult and larval stages both feed on a variety of plants, including pumpkin, squash, beets, wheat, radish, rhubarb, potato, lettuce, cabbage, turnip, and rapeseed. Beets and spinach suffer the most damage in May. Aside from these crops, they consume lamb's quarters, povertyweed, and other native and introduced members of the plant family Chenopodiacea; and also nightshade (family Solanaceae).

The adult beetles emerge early in the spring, so apparently finding one at this time of year is not too unusual. Females lay their eggs in soil shortly thereafter, and in about a week the larvae hatch. The larvae feed during the day on young leaves and shoots of their host plants, hiding in the soil at night. There are three instars, an instar being the interval between molts of the exoskeleton to allow the insect to grow larger. The first two instars each last about five days, the third instar taking an average of fifteen days before the molt into the pupa stage. Mature larvae, black in color, are about 11-15 millimeters long. The pupa is buried one to two inches deep in the soil. The adult beetle emerges from the pupa in about three weeks. Thus there is one generation each year, the beetles overwintering as adults.

Note the "cleft lip" just behind the jaws

These are small insects as carrion beetles go, only 12-17 millimeters in length. They resemble several other carrion beetles but for a couple of features. The diagnostic character for this genus is the cleft labrum, or "upper lip" if you will, just behind the mandibles. The deep notch leaves no doubt as to the identity of the beetle. There are two species in the genus, but Aclypea opaca, the "Beet Carrion Beetle," is restricted in North America to Alaska and the Northwest Territories. It appears to be native to northern and central Europe, being introduced accidentally to North America.

The other feature that helps identify A. bituberosa is the pair of raised tubercles, one each near the rear of each elytron (wing cover). There are three conspicuous longitudinal ridges on each wing cover as well.

The beetle cleaned up and photographed at home

The Western Spinach Carrion Beetle is just that: a species confined to the northwest quarter of the U.S. and adjacent southern Canada, from British Columbia and Washington state south to central California east of the Sierras, and eastward to northeast Nebraska and southeast Manitoba. It is more common east of the Continental Divide, less so in the Pacific Northwest. The adult beetles are active from March through November, and occur both on the plains and in mountain meadows.

While I find carrion beetles quite fascinating, I cannot help but hope to find less morbid insects in the coming months, creatures that reflect the true optimism of spring. Plus, I need to start eating a little healthier, and this particular beetle is competing for "my" veggies.

Sources: Anderson, Robert S. and Stewart B. Peck. 1984. "Bionomics of Nearctic Species of Aclypea Reitter Phytophagous "Carrion Beetles" (Coleoptera: Silphidae)," Pan Pac Ent 60(3): 248-255.
Essig, E.O. 1958. Insects and Mites of Western North America. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1050 pp.
Monk, Emily, et al. 2016. "Key to the carrion beetles (Silphidae) of Colorado & neighboring states," Colorado University Museum of Natural History.
Swan, Lester A. and Charles S. Papp. 1972. The Common Insects of North America. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 750 pp.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Poor Substitutes

Two news stories crossed my Facebook newsfeed and the television news respectively last week that should raise concern for anyone advocating for the conservation of forests and pollinators. What the media hails as milestone inventions could have negative impacts for nature's originals.

© Hassnain Develish and Facebook.com

Hassain Develish's "World of Biology" Facebook group posted the above meme on February 5, describing a new, synthetic "biological leaf." This is actually old news, but this video explains Julian Melchiorri's creation and the potential applications he sees for it. First off, this is not a truly synthetic product. It still requires actual chloroplasts found in plants; and those chloroplasts are embedded in a structure derived from silk. Yes, the silk produced by caterpillars of the domesticated silkworm moth. It appears that there is not much truly unique here, except where you can deploy it. Synthetic leaves can be used where actual plants will not grow.

© Eijiro Miyako and Futurism.com

Meanwhile, Japanese chemists unveiled tiny drones coated with sticky horsehair that they claim could pollinate crops. I learned of this story on CBS News This Morning, and the accompanying video clip was so horrendous a demonstration of "pollination" that I started laughing. A similar undertaking is underway at Sussex University in England, under the leadership of Thomas Nowotny. His lab's drones are larger, but may be able to include GPS and other navigational technologies that the Japanese microdrones have no room for. Not to be upstaged, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University has produced robotic bees, too, and envision that they could be useful not only in pollinating crops, but in search-and-rescue, surveillance, and environmental monitoring.

Do we not see the implied messages in these endeavors? The implications are that we do not need the original, natural, biological organisms. Technology can make things "better" than nature. We can continue rampant deforestation because we can create synthetic leaves. We can tolerate a dwindling diversity and population of pollinating insects because we can make drones that do the job (at least for crops because no plants matter unless they can feed people). The most important, and disgusting, message being sent is this: Non-human organisms must have utilitarian benefits to humanity to justify their existence.

Even if you believe in creation instead of evolution, you must admit that we were instructed by God to serve as stewards of creation, not given the mandate to replace it. Indeed, we are servants to other organisms, and they in turn are servants to us, but not always in such black-and-white, easily understood ways. Nature is complex for a reason, and the many other organisms that are responsible for human success on planet Earth are not always as charismatic as butterflies, bees, and trees. Moreover, while it is natural for any organism to view the world selfishly, to enhance its own dominance, humans can actually succeed in eliminating our predators, parasites, and competitors. We do this at the expense of not only those other species, but at the cost of our biophilia, our innate love and reverence for other creatures.

Remember, insects like bees are also food for other creatures. Tiny metallic drones offer no nutrition to a hungry bird, and would likely kill any predator mistaking them for real bees. There is that, and the fact that I, for one, find mechanical facsimiles of insects and other animals far less captivating than the real thing. Indeed, I find them boring, simple, and poor substitutions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

It's Always Something....

To quote the lovely Ms. Rosanne Roseannadanna, "It just goes to show you, it's always something." It may take months, even years, to learn that something you observed and recorded is noteworthy, or potentially so. Such was a recent case in which an image I posted on Bugguide.net was finally identified, more or less, leaving still more questions than answers.

November 27, 2014, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., I was at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo where my wife works as a primate keeper. The zoo restaurant staff caters a holiday lunch, and employees bring potluck dishes to supplement. Before and after the feast, I was out looking for insects, as the weather was reasonably conducive to finding late autumn macro-fauna.

On a wooden fence railing I spotted what at first I thought might be an aphid. Upon closer inspection, it was an aphid relative known as a "jumping plant louse" or psyllid. This is a tiny insect. Total body length is only 2.6 millimeters, or 4-4.5 mm if you measure from head to wingtip. It varies from light green to greenish gray.

Psyllids were once lumped into a single family, but research has shown that there are several families. A few species are very abundant and conspicuous, like hackberry psyllids. A few others are economically impactful, especially in orchard crops. The remaining majority are poorly known, keeping a very low profile on native plants.

The image I uploaded to Bugguide understandably floundered in obscurity until February 2 of this year when I received notification that someone had left comments and even moved the image into genus-level classification. I was grateful, but also surprised by the comments left by Chris Mallory:

"Bactericera nr. arbolensis
In nearly every regard it is consistent with this Shepherdia-associated species originally described from Arboles, CO. However, the medial cell of the forewing is much smaller than described and illustrated, and in this aspect it does not agree with any known described species.
There could be several reasons for this. First, the size of the medial cell of B. arbolensis may be more variable than the literature suggests. Alternatively, this may be an undescribed but related species. In either situation it is a very interesting find. I'd love to see more of them."

Wow. Chris Mallory is an expert on the superfamily Psylloidea; and is also one of the individuals behind the comprehensive online guide SoCalFauna.net, a photographic gallery of most of the animals one is likely to encounter in southern California.

Thanks to the in-depth profile page at Chris's Psyllids.info website, I learned that the species he thinks it might be is known from Silver Buffaloberry, Shepherdia argentea and Canadian Buffaloberry, Shepherdia canadensis. Neither of those plants is very common, if found at all, along the Front Range of Colorado. It is, however, conceivable that the zoo landscapes with one or both of them, so I will have to check out that possibility. Meanwhile, there are few literature records of the psyllid itself: MONTANA: Roosevelt County; WYOMING: Sweetwater County: Green River; COLORADO: Montrose County: Cimarron; LaPlata County: Durango; Archuleta County: Arboles. All but the Montana record are from west of the Continental Divide. The type specimens, those from which the insect was described and named, were 3 males and 4 females collected by C.F. Baker in Arboles.

There are 24 known species of Bactericera found in North America north of Mexico, and mine is potentially a twenty-fifth. This just goes to show you, you never know what you might turn up if you point your gaze, and camera or phone, at a yittle, teeny-tiny bug.

Sources: Crawford, D.L. 1914. A Monograph of the Jumping Plant-lice or Psyllidae of the New World. 85: 186 pp. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Tuthill, L.D. 1943. "The Psyllids of America North of Mexico: (Psyllidae: Homoptera)," Iowa State College Journal of Science. 218 pp.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Winter Click Beetle?

I can't make this stuff up. Here I am just walking my neighborhood for exercise yesterday, as I try to do on a daily basis, and limping across the sidewalk comes a little (6-7 mm) click beetle. I put it in a vial, bring it home, and take a couple of pictures. Because I am curious, and I know that "bug folks" on Facebook are starved for stimuli during the winter, I post the images in a beetle group. How should I know that would be genuinely exciting?

My first stop online was the "Friends of Coleoptera [beetles] at the Natural History Museum" group on Facebook. The group is hosted by curators at the Natural History Museum in London, England, but beetle experts from all over the world are members of the group and always willing to help with identifications.

As luck would have it, one of my mentors from back when I was a teenager, and then at Oregon State University, is an expert on click beetles (family Elateridae). I knew this, and I knew he was in the Facebook group, but I had no idea when he would be online next, let alone looking at posts in the group. In a matter of minutes, he had put up a comment on my post that exceeded my wildest expectations:

"Anthracopteryx hiemalis. Super-nice find! This is a native winter-active species in a monobasic genus. It is endemic from Laramie south to Westcliffe in the Front Ranges. Never collected it myself."

Translation: This beetle is the only species in that genus, and it has a very restricted geographical range. You could have knocked me over with a feather. What I haven't told my friend yet is that this is actually the second specimen I have found, in the same stretch of sidewalk, under pretty much the same exact conditions. I didn't get around to imaging that first specimen until it was just about to expire, unfortunately, but here you go....

I certainly did not expect to get a species identification, but I took that and went over to Bugguide.net, the foremost online repository of images of North American insects, spiders, and other arthropods, to add my two images. Well, there weren't any others. There was not a species page to put them on. There was not even a page for the genus. Fortunately, I have volunteer editorial privileges, and so I was able to erect the appropriate pages and then put the pictures up. That kind of thing does not happen very often any more. Bugguide is damn comprehensive.

The lesson I learned, and should have learned long ago, actually, is that when it comes to entomology, you can never assume anything. You can never figure that what you observe and record has no significance. Sure, most of the time it won't be earth-shaking in any way. Then, one day when you don't bother making something public, you will be depriving the scientific community of something truly remarkable.

If anyone ever chastises you for sharing an observation of some "common" critter that you personally were unfamiliar with, then the shame is on them. We can all recall learning about a given organism for the first time, and how exciting that was. Scientists have no right to insult anyone for making an effort to learn, contribute, and otherwise share. Thankfully, there are few scholars that arrogant and disrespectful.

So, get out there on warm winter days and start looking for stuff! There are, no doubt, whole communities of winter-active organisms that we are overlooking.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Carrion Beetle That Isn't?

At first glance, the Garden Carrion Beetle, Heterosilpha ramosa, could be mistaken for a darkling beetle or ground beetle. Indeed, only the clubbed antennae, and the five tarsal segments comprising each "foot," betray them as something else (darkling beetles have only four segments in the tarsus of the hind leg). Carrion beetles make up the family Silphidae, but surprisingly, this particular species seems to have a diet of anything but corpses.

I periodically encounter the 11-17 millimeter long, dull black adult beetles crossing the sidewalk in my Colorado Springs neighborhood. The natural habitat here is shortgrass prairie, but I knew this beetle when I lived in the coniferous forests of Portland and Corvallis, Oregon, too. It occurs mostly west of the Rockies and south to Mexico, but ranges east and north as far as Iowa, Minnesota, and Ontario, Canada.

Consulting various references paints and interesting and evolving picture of H. ramosa. Older references used the genus name Silpha, but it is the portrayal of the species as at least an occasional pest that is puzzling. Essig declares that the Garden Carrion Beetle feeds mostly on decaying vegetable matter, but "also attacks garden and field crops, grasses, and weeds. If often occurs on lawns." Presumably it consumes these foods as both an adult and a larva.

The larva is jet black, highly mobile, and resembles an overgrown carpet or hide beetle larva (family Dermestidae, especially genus Dermestes). The tapered body allows the larva to slither effortlessly into cracks and crevices, or easily slip out of a predator's grasp. The speed at which it can travel is rather surprising considering the relatively short legs at the front of the body.

A more contemporary book by Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue asserts that the "Garden Silphid" adults and larvae "are general feeders, consuming living or dead, soft-bodied insects such as maggots, which feed on decaying organic matter in the soil; Silpha sometimes feed on leaves of plants at night."

Arthur V. Evans and James Hogue illuminate the natural history of this species a bit more in the most recent reference I could find in my library. According to their Field Guide to Beetles of California, "The adult is active March through October....overwinters and becomes active the following spring. Eggs ar laid in the soil around a carcass or rotting vegetable matter and take approximately five days to hatch.....The larval stage lasts approximately two to three weeks. The pupal stage lasts 8-9 days." The authors go on to recite the previous conclusion that both the adult beetles and the larvae are "general feeders."

The evolution of our understanding of the impact of H. ramosa comes full circle, from minor crop pest to beneficial organism in the rest of Hogue and Evans' life history sketch: "The adult has been found feeding on dead Devastating Grasshoppers (Melanoplus devastator) and Brown Garden Snails (Helix asper)." Ok, so it is scavenging, but considering the predatory nature of other carrion beetles, it would be no surprise to find it killing injured or otherwise incapacitated pest invertebrates, too.

What else do we not know about this species, or any other insect for that matter? The answer is "plenty." Insects which are not perceived to be of economic importance, either positively or negatively, tend to be under-researched, to put it mildly. Outright ignored is perhaps an even better way to frame it. Pick a "bug," any bug, to study, and chances are you can be something of a hero.

Sources: Essig, E.O. 1958. Insects and Mites of Western North America. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1050 pp.
Evans, Arthur V. and James N. Hogue. 2006. Field Guide to Beetles of California. Berkeley: University of California Press. 355 pp.
Powell, Jerry A. and Charles L. Hogue. 1979. California Insects. Berkeley: University of California Press. 388 pp.
White, Richard E. 1983. A Field Guide to the Beetles of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 368 pp.