Thursday, July 12, 2018

I Value Your Comments, But Am Not Getting Notifications

I have not been receiving e-mail notifications of comments on this blog as I used to, but thanks to a prompt from one of you I discovered I had a whole backlog of comments awaiting my moderation. Some of those dated back to September of last year! I will try and get the notifications generated again, but in the meantime I will look in on pending comments at least weekly. You have my sincerest apologies for this oversight. Thank you.

Why do I bother screening comments? My posts would be "spam city" if I did not, and I know you don't want unsolicited advertisements for Viagra and such, abusive language, and other nonsense.

An Insect "State of the Summer" Report

Here in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and elsewhere in the state, it has been anything but a normal summer. Not that there is any such thing as "usual" in this age of aridification and climate change, of course. What follows are personal, anecdotal observations related to weather, insect diversity, and insect abundance so far this season.

Mammatus clouds signal impending hail

There are only three words needed to describe the weather this summer: Hot, dry, and stormy. We have had recent stretches of ninety-plus degree days, well above the expected average. The excessive heat has been punctuated by severe thunderstorms. At our home, we have had more hail events this year than in the five-plus previous years that I have lived here....and we were lucky. One major hail storm dumped baseball-sized ice balls on the city of Fountain, just a few miles down the highway from Colorado Springs. Repairs to vehicles and roofs and other damaged property will take months and cost many thousands of dollars.

Accumulated hail in our backyard today!

Beyond the city, at least fifteen wildfires have burned thousands of acres of forest and grassland, rendering wildlife habitat and recreational destinations unfit for man or beast for years to come. That does not even address the human dwellings and other structures that were lost in the blazes. Now, heavy rains like we had at our home today will cause flash flooding over the burn scars, and lead to water damage at the bottom of slopes.

Aristotelia elegantella, a tiny twirler moth new to our yard
Insect Diversity

Insect diversity appears....relatively stable, though it is difficult to assess for reasons that will become clear later in this story. Interestingly, every time I turn on our backyard blacklight I seem to attract some species new to me and new to our growing "home list" of animal organisms that now exceeds 440 taxa (levels of classification from Kingdom to species and every level in between). I have managed to excite even seasoned moth experts with some of the nocturnal Lepidoptera that are turning up. We have even had a pine sawyer (Monochamus clamator) and bark beetles (Dendroctonus sp.) come to the blacklight. I suspect someone brought firewood down out of the mountains and the beetles are emerging from it.

Spotted Pine Sawyer, Monochamus clamator
Insect Abundance

Numbers of individual insects are way down. I have to work hard just to find species normally overwhelmingly present. It is this situation that has made assessing diversity more difficult. It is disturbing to note how few insects there are visiting wildflowers, but wildflowers are fewer and farther in between, too, smaller in size and lower-growing than usual, making it difficult to detect them, let alone any pollinators. Yellow Sweet Clover, Melilotus officinalis, an exotic invasive that is now well-established throughout the U.S., and its relative White Sweet Clover, are overwhelmingly abundant this year. They normally attract plenty of pollinators, but I find almost none.

Overwhelming parasitic mite load on Melanoplus sp. grasshopper

Another worrisome observation is that the few arthropods doing well are mostly parasites of other arthropods. Parasitic mite loads on grasshoppers are in some instances frighteningly high. Bee flies are doing well but their hosts, solitary wasps and bees among others, are not prospering. Cuckoo wasps and cuckoo bees are at about average density and distribution.

Bee flies, like this Poecilanthrax arethusa, seem to be doing fine

Even the European Paper Wasps nesting on our back gate have failed to produce more than about two new workers the entire summer so far. That is shocking since they are among the most successful of social predatory wasps.

The New Normal?

Should this year be the beginning of a trend, it would be devastating. Our drought-stricken landscape needs to be watered with historically normal rain patterns or another Dust Bowl will be upon us, threatening not only wildlife diversity but human sustenance in the form of crops and livestock. The forest wilderness cannot take further fragmentation if wildlife populations are to endure, especially large predators that require vast individual territories for hunting and rearing offspring. We need to start treating our own properties as potential wildlife habitat, planting with native vegetation. It may be that we also need to assume some degree of latitudinal climate change and plan accordingly, adopting drought-resistant cultivars into our landscaping.

Our backyard milkweed garden ravaged by today's hail

What are you observing where you live? Share your stories and concerns and possible solutions. This blog is a community built by all of you, please speak up.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Raid of the Slave-makers

The insect world is full of drama, one of the major attractions for entomologists and naturalists and wildlife photographers. Among the more rarely-witnessed phenomena are raids by slave-making ants in the genus Polyergus, known as "Amazon ants."

Raiding party of Polyergus montivagus

I have had the privilege of seeing three separate slave raids while living here in Colorado Springs, Colorado. All have taken place in late afternoon or early evening. The latest was on July 1 of this year when my wife and I were hiking a trail in Cheyenne Mountain State Park. She happened to pause at what I initially dismissed as yet another harvester ant trail, worker ants bustling about with grass seeds.

Amazon ant workers carrying pupae of their "slaves"

The ants were actually carrying the pupae of their host, ants in the genus Formica. We traced their apparent destination to a Formica colony, but I have learned that this makes sense. The adult slaves on the receiving end of this raid represent members of a colony taken over by an Amazon queen that managed to dupe the workers of an existing Formica colony before killing its queen. Those workers will now set about rearing these most recent arrivals, "adopted" larvae and pupae.

Those jaws are ready for battle

The anatomy of Amazon ant females is such that they are obligatory warriors. Their bodies are sleek and shiny, their slick exoskeletons deflecting the attempted bites of their victims. The jaws of Amazon ants are sickle-shaped and designed to do only one thing well: pierce the heads of the worker Formica ants. Amazons cannot feed themselves, let alone excavate a nest, so they must depend on existing subterranean nests of their Formica hosts. The Formica workers at the receiving end of the Polyergus raid were already enslaved!

The efficiency of a Polyergus slave raid is stunning. One wonders if the victimized colony, pilfered of most of its juvenile workers, ever recovers from such devastation. These ant pirates show now mercy, except for the kidnapped larval and pupa offspring, the majority of which they somehow manage to transport without injury. Not that some of these soft-bodied juveniles will not end up as food instead of slaves, mind you.

Worker Amazon, Polyergus mexicanus

How this specialized lifestyle came to be is open to conjecture, though a reasonable theory comes from studies of ant evolution and genetic relationships. There are slave-making species in the genus Formica, some of them obligatory slave-makers, and others facultative. Facultative social parasites are species capable of existing and prospering in the conventional sense, but are also opportunistic slave-makers. It is surmised that Polyergus Amazon ants evolved from the obligatory slave-making Formica species. Indeed, they appear closely related.

An average colony of Polyergus is between 300-500 workers, surrounded by many hundreds of their slaves. Such a colony can include a mix of different Formica species. Raids on Formica colonies are frequent, and so Amazons need a robust population of host colonies that they can draw from.

Carting off the "booty"

The genus Polyergus is holarctic (found throughout the northern hemisphere), but reaches its zenith of diversity in the United States. There are fourteen species in the world, eleven of which are found only in the U.S. Polyergus mexicanus is likely the one I have been seeing here along the Front Range of the Rockies. Ant diversity in general is surprisingly great here in Colorado, so it is easy to assume you are only seeing a few species when in fact there are several.

Keep an eye out for interesting ant behaviors, and try and document them as best as you can. You could shed new light on our collective knowledge of these amazing social insects.

Sources: Anonymous. 2017. "Polyergus,"Antwiki
Holldobler, Bert and E.O. Wilson. 1990. The Ants. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.732 pp.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

So You Know "They Exist"

Were you to ask me why I do what I do, why I constantly talk and write about insects, why I share images of them, I would have had trouble articulating an answer....until now. I just finished watching a 60 Minutes segment about the French artist JR. His shift from a youthful desire to assert "I exist" to a more altruistic mission of showing "they exist," meaning the everyday person we overlook and neglect, resonated with me immediately. It was an epiphany that brought me to tears. That is exactly why I do what I do. Just substitute "insects" for people.

The shy smile of a dragonfly

There is great power in art, especially at the scale that JR works at. His greatly enlarged images of people, even just their eyes, does more than impact the viewer. It empowers the subjects. Literally depicted larger than life, they suddenly realize they have been important all along. They may live in a slum in Rio, but circumstance, or habitat, if you will, does not diminish their identity. They are human, too, deserving of respect and even celebration.

Collectively, it is easy for us to ignore the struggle, the toil, the daily lives of others who we view as different from us, or even beneath us in some way, be it economically or politically or in lifestyle, or merely because they live on the other side of the globe (or border). Art can be the great equalizer by transcending those artificial, segregating concepts. We are united in our common anatomy, self-expression, dignity. Art in fact recognizes only those similarities, if it is done in the way it should be.

Now look at insects. What other members of the kingdom Animalia could look so radically different from us? The union of art and science can inform us here. Portraits of insects can reveal hidden personalities and expressions startlingly akin to our own, even if we interpret them only as caricatures of humanity. There is still a common thread that cannot be ignored. Videography reveals behaviors that reflect instincts and lifestyles utterly aligned with our own lives as parents, providers, and contributors to society.

Ants with treehoppers

The average person either ignores most insects, or takes notice only of the mosquito biting them, or the hornworm eating "their" tomato plant. Insects are viewed as destructive to our economy, person, or personal property, or at best a nuisance. Science knows better, and in tandem with art can convert the most entomophobic of people to at least an arm's-length appreciation of these animals.

The flip side of our schizophrenic relationship to insects is our perception of them as potentially decorative. There are now many an insect-inspired motif for interior decor, and many preserved specimens are framed and sold as wall art. The reduction of insects to "product" is not art in the truest sense, but mere commercialization capitalizing on our personal desires for something unique. We put a premium on differences that way. It is an unbecoming tendency of our species.

Such things as this checkered beetle exist!

Ironically, my attraction to insects as a child had something to do with my inability to assert my own self-worth, much as the subjects of JR's photos. Insects became a surrogate that I could tout as "cool" because I could research interesting facts about them. I did not know any interesting facts about myself that seemed relevant to social interactions with my peers. The playground was a fearful place, so I went out on the fringes and looked for "bugs." As an only child, such on-my-own pursuits felt more comfortable anyway.

Eventually, a few of my peers became sufficiently intrigued as to join me now and then. As one boy put it after we uncovered a particularly large spider from under loose bark on a tree, "I always thought looking for bugs was sissy stuff, but that spider changed my mind!" Meanwhile, one of my most masculine, hockey-playing friends showed me his butterfly collection at home, though I was sworn to secrecy in the schoolyard.

Portrait of a horse fly: Mesmer-eyes-ing

Today, I am more comfortable with my own identity and can share what I know about entomology with less personal baggage. I care less about what others think of me than what they now think of insects, hopefully enlightened by whatever I have to say or show. The artist JR has shown me what is possible if I start to think bigger still.