Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's Happening Again, Already.

Well, the peace didn't last long. Tuesday, August 25, I learned of yet another website hijacking my blog post content. This time is different, and may be next to impossible to stop. Thank you, "EntomoplanetDOTcom," for at least not stripping my blog title from what you have stolen, but you still do not have my permission.

The problem this time is that the website host is in Poland of all places. It makes it a lot harder to shut down something like this when it is literally an international incident. It appears the best we can do is to alert Google so that they can boot the website to the bottom of their search engine "results," or banish the scammers from appearing in Google at all.

I was tipped off when I received an e-mail asking me to "moderate" one of my recent blog posts, the one celebrating victory over the other thief, ironically enough. I never get e-mail notifications that look like that, and so I began investigating.

This website is classified as a "news aggregator," and indeed it is not only "aggregating" content from my blog, but also lifting posts from "Entomology Today" (the blog of the Entomological Society of America), and the "Living With Insects" blog. I have notified both parties via e-mail.

This kind of thing is demoralizing, as I am sure you can imagine, and it means I have to learn how to write my own DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notices and what not. Alex Wild, a talented photographer who has his images stolen all the time, devotes much of his time now to addressing such legal problems. He informs me that "85% of internet marketing is done by criminals." How comforting.

For now, I am in the process of taking in advice on what to do next. Your suggestions are welcome, too, of course. Thank you all for your continued patience and policing on my behalf.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Aculepeira Orb Weavers

It takes little to excite me when I am out in the field, but back on July 13 I happened upon a spider that was new to me. My wife and I were hiking in Lovell Gulch, just outside of Woodland Park in Teller County, Colorado, enjoying the mixed conifer and aspen forests at an elevation of roughly 8,500 feet. I seem to recall watching an insect in flight when an orb weaver spider caught my attention.

The underside of the spider was most visible as it sat in the hub (center) of its wheel-like web, so I maneuvered as best I could to get a dorsal (top side) view. My initial thought was that this was a spider I had seen dozens of times: the Western Spotted Orb Weaver, Neoscona oaxacensis. Still, something seemed a little bit "off," and sure enough the ventral markings on this spider's abdomen were very different from that of a Neoscona species.

Underside of A. packardi
Underside of Neoscona oaxacensis

Once I got back home, I tried my hunch that it might instead be a species of Aculepeira, even though I had never seen a specimen before. Indeed it was. It turns out that this genus is pretty much restricted to high elevation, and/or high latitude habitats. The three North American species are collectively found from Alaska and the Yukon Territory to northern Mexico. There are also a few records in the northeast U.S. One undescribed "prairie species" has been discovered in western Washington state.

This one is almost certainly Aculepeira packardi, but it takes a microscopic examination of the genitalia of adult specimens to be conclusive. Note that the species name in older references is spelled with two "i"s: A. packardii. The other two species here are A. carbonarioides and A. aculifera (which reaches Guatemala).

Normally, the adult female spider hides in a silken retreat on the periphery of her web during the day, but this was a mostly cool, overcast day, so she may have felt comfortable occupying the center of her snare. The web was strung between the branches of a very low-growing shrub on a gentle slope in an open meadow.

These are good-sized spiders, mature females averaging nearly 11 millimeters in body length, males about 6 millimeters. The markings are pretty consistent, too, which does help a little bit in determining the species.

Interestingly, A. packardi also ranges in the Russian far east, Siberia, and northern China. In North America, it ranges from the Yukon to Labrador, and south to Chihuahua, Mexico and Pensylvania.

One typical dorsal pattern of Neoscona oaxacensis

From now on I will always double check spiders that I "think" I already know. It is a good practice, for you never know if you will find something new; new to you, or even new to science. All text and images © Eric R. Eaton

Sources: Balaban, John and Jane, et al. 2015. "Species Aculepeira packardii," Bugguide.net.
Dondale, Charles D., James H. Redner, Pierre Paquin, and Herbert W. Levi. 2003. The Orb-weaving Spiders of Canada and Alaska (Araneae: Uloboridae, Tetragnathidae, Araneidae, Theridiosomatidae), The Insects and Arachnids of Canada Part 23. Ottawa, Ontario: NRC Research Press. 371 pp.
Schimming, Lynette. 2013. "Genus Aculepeira," Bugguide.net.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Zombie Ladybugs"

We have had an exceptionally wet, cool spring and summer here along the Front Range; and perhaps it was raining lady beetles, because there are more coccinellids than I have ever seen before. With the lady beetles come their insidious parasite, a wasp in the family Braconidae that goes by the name of Dinocampus coccinellae.

Convergent Lady Beetle Host, California

I first encountered the work of these bizarre wasps in southern California. Upon close inspection of a surprisingly inert Convergent Lady Beetle, I found it had beneath it a silken cocoon. I had heard of Dinocampus before, but never seen any life stage in person until then. What scientists have discovered about the species since then is nothing short of mind-blowing.

Ok, so the tiny female wasp sneaks up on an unsuspecting beetle and drives a single egg into its body using her spear-like ovipositor. The wasp larva that hatches then begins feeding as an internal parasite of the beetle. It may not kill its host, however. No, what happens is far more weird than that.

An article on the National Geographic website describes a fascinating if not frightening addition to the wasp versus beetle equation. Besides laying an egg in the host, the wasp also deposits a virus. This virus, called D. coccinellae Paralysis Virus (abbreviated "DcPV"), takes up residence in the wasp larva where it replicates.

Once the wasp larva is ready to enter the pupa stage, the virus migrates to the beetle host's nervous system where it has a paralyzing effect. The wasp larva then exits the beetle and spins a silken cocoon beneath it. While the host is helpless to move of its own free will, the virus apparently triggers periodic twitches in the beetle, enough to make it appear capable of attacking any potential parasites of the wasp cocoon.

Parasitized Lady Beetle from Plant Nursery, Colorado

Since lady beetles themselves are well-defended by toxic alkaloid chemicals in their bodies, it is unlikely any predator would attempt to attack the beetle and the wasp cocoon it is guarding. Ironically, a volatile chemical compound given off by lady beetles is what may attract the parasitic wasps to being with.

My wife found one of these beetle-and-cocoon conglomerations on the leaf of a tomato in our community garden plot here in Colorado Springs; and I found another one attached to the blade of an ornamental grass at my workplace, a plant nursery, also in Colorado Springs. Meanwhile, a friend from Facebook, Ryan Nefcy, found his own specimens and committed to rearing out the wasp.

Seven-spotted Lady Beetle Host, Colorado
© Ryan Nefcy

Rayan's stunning pictures of the miniscule wasp are shown here. His images are all the more remarkable considering ".... this thing hatched and it is SO FRICKIN SMALL. And it's moving at 100 mph trying to find a way out of the vial I have it in," as Ryan put it in one of the comments on his Facebook postings.

Adult braconid wasp © Ryan Nefcy

Ryan collected the lady beetle and cocoon on August 12, and the wasp emerged on August 21. The lady beetle host also resumed normal mobility in the aftermath, as about one-third of the victims recover from the whole ordeal.

© Ryan Nefcy

Dinocampus coccinellae is found pretty much worldwide, and is not specific as to which lady beetles it uses as hosts. Presumably, the larger the host the better, but most victims here in the U.S. appear to be either the Convergent Lady Beetle or the introduced (from Europe) Seven-spotted Lady Beetle.

Because lady beetles are important predators of aphids, scale insects, and other pests, there is at least mild concern over the impact of the braconid parasite, especially in agricultural systems that rely on biological control. Female beetles may be preferentially targeted; and the feeding activities of the wasp larva may even sterilize the host, which means that even if a victim recovers, it will be unable to reproduce.

Parasitized Lady Beetle from Community Garden, Colorado

This has been one of the most-studied members of the family Braconidae, and one may find numerous scientific papers in professional journals and online.

Sources: S. Al Abassi, M.A. Birkett, J. Pettersson, J.A. Pickett, L.J. Wadhams, and C.M. Woodcock. 2001. "Response of the Ladybird Parasitoid Dinocampus coccinellae to Toxic Alkaloids From the Seven-spot Ladybird Coccinella septempunctata," J. Chem. Ecol. 27(1): 33-43.
Schimming, Lynette. 2009. "Species Dinocampus coccinellae," Bugguide.net.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

One of my Articles Won an Award?

Having "Google Alerts" on my name and blog title provided an unexpected bonus last week. It turns out that one of my magazine articles won an award from the Association for Conservation Information. The award was for first place in the "Magazine Wildlife Article" category, and awarded to Wonderful West Virginia magazine. My article "Stealth Hunters," about assassin bugs, took the prize.

© WVDNR

Curiously, the Google Alert was to a television news story that mentioned me by name. The award itself did not. However, Wonderful West Virginia changed publishers and staff recently, so that may account for why they never notified me themselves.

The full slate of awards is available for viewing in this PDF

I honestly don't think about potential accolades when I am writing. I strive to write captivating, informative, and understandable prose of a quality that I am proud to put my name on. Feedback from readers and blog followers is even more appreciated than recognition in the "red carpet" sense. I have peers who I think far exceed me in skill, knowledge, and initiative, and I hope they are recognized and appreciated, too. It literally "takes a village" to spread the word about fauna, flora, and the need to conserve habitats.