Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Advantage: Photography

This month I took up digital photography. That may be an overstatement. I know nothing about photography period. I wanted to blog, though, and images help to make a blog visually appealing and successful in attracting a readership. A friend was encouraging, to the point of lending me her PowerShot SD1000, one of the subcompact “Elph” series that Canon puts out. I am amazed by what close-up capabilities the tiny camera has, and how easy it is to take a reasonably good image. I had been collecting insect specimens up until now, but looking at things through a camera lens (or at least the LED screen) has been perhaps even more rewarding.

I got to thinking that there is much more of an advantage to taking images rather than specimens:

  • You don’t need permits to take images.
  • You can take images of wildlife and people (you can’t “collect” those!).
  • Storage of images takes a lot less room than storage of an insect collection.
  • It takes less time to prepare an image than a specimen (that may change as I get more sophisticated).
  • You can share images (I can’t pin an insect specimen to my blog).
  • Photography makes you more observant.
  • Images of living organisms are more colorful and robust than faded, withered dead specimens.
  • You can record behaviors in a photograph.
  • You can record habitat in an image.
  • Carpet beetle larvae can’t eat my hard drive.

I decided that while I was enjoying my friend’s camera, I needed to get one of my own. Boy, did I ever get a lot of advice on that decision! Well, I did ask for it. Some photographer friends recommended getting a used, refurbished DSLR and a versatile lens, the equivalent of “old” 35 millimeter cameras. Others endorsed their own tried-and-true equipment of the point and shoot variety. Given my budget restraints, and lack of experience with cameras, I opted for a Canon SX10, a “super zoom” model that gives me the option of manual controls and settings when I get to the point of understanding them.

I highly recommend taking up photography in the digital age. It is easy, fun, as cheap or expensive as you want to make it, and very rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a need for scientific collecting of actual specimens. I feel I have largely done my share of that for my lifetime, and I now look forward to contributing to the brotherhood of naturalists and biophiles as well as the scientific community.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Enemy Mentality

Americans seem to classify insects and other arthropods in one of two categories: a pest to be annihilated with chemicals, or something to be devoured on the television show Fear Factor (or eaten by Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild). Why does the media dwell on fear and loathing instead of fascination and appreciation? I suppose the answer should be obvious.

There is a great deal of money to be made by reinforcing the irrational fear of insects, spiders, and other arthropods. An educated consumer knows that he or she need not always reach for the can of insecticide at the mere appearance of an unidentified invertebrate. Household pesticide manufacturers and extermination services would undoubtedly lose business if the majority of their customers knew the truth about insects, and were able to identify which ones are a real source of concern and not merely a nuisance.

Further, our American society likes everything in black and white terms. Something is either “good,” or it is “bad.” We are uncomfortable with gray areas. We also seem to need motivation in the form of an adversary or foe, something to fight against. Insects and spiders are easily framed as villains. Maybe we can’t control what happens to us in the workplace, or maybe we are having a hard time controlling an unruly son or daughter, but gosh darn it we will control the cockroaches if it kills us.

I am often motivated to change public attitudes about insects because I firmly believe it will help dissolve our overall enemy mentality. Surely, if we can stop killing insects needlessly, we can stop killing each other, too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Spider Scare in the News

Last week a news story broke about a potentially dangerous neotropical (New World tropics) spider that stowed away in a crate of bananas from Latin America and ended up in a grocery store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Credit the media for sticking with the story and getting it right for a change, successfully quelling what could have been needless widespread public hysteria.

Two experts in the case contradicted each other’s identification of the arachnid, and because the specimen was dispatched, there was no way to verify its identity. There are several species in the spider family Ctenidae, collectively known as “wandering spiders” because they do not spin webs to catch prey. Their large size and often aggressive behavior is enough to intimidate a person, regardless of how venomous they may be. The genus Phoneutria includes at least some species that can, rarely, deliver a lethal bite. Species in the harmless genus Cupiennius, however, can be easily mistaken for their deadlier cousins.

Richard S. Vetter and Stefan Hillebrecht addressed this dilemma in the cover story of the summer, 2008 issue of American Entomologist, a journal of the American Entomological Society. The bottom line from the article is that without close examination of a specimen, it is unlikely that an individual spider can be correctly identified. The better news is that fatalities from bites of Phoneutria are very rare, even for “at risk” populations such as the elderly and infants. It is largely one’s immune system response, rather than the toxicity of venom, that determines whether a bite will result in no reaction, a mild response, or a severe trauma.

Many of the reader response comments on the Yahoo version of the story centered on the perceived failure of our government inspection services. Dangerously venomous tropical spiders do not routinely infiltrate our nation, however, and the large volume of foreign shipments to the U.S. precludes comprehensive inspections. It is the price we pay for a “free market” where goods pass unfettered across borders. Collectively, through our demand for tropical fruits and houseplants, we consumers have determined that risks like spiders are an acceptable hazard.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On the Radio

I awoke this morning to my usual radio station, but the DJs were bantering about “giant mosquitoes” that one of them was seeing in his house recently. I knew immediately that what he was referring to were harmless “crane flies” in the family Tipulidae. I also knew they were emerging in fair numbers because I photographed this pair (female above, male below) as they rested on a pillar at the University of Arizona campus during the recent Tucson Festival of Books.

I got up, went to the phonebook, and found the number for the station. As luck would have it, I got right through to Blake and Jennie, and told them what I knew.

”Are they good dog food?” asked Blake, “because my dog sure loves to eat ‘em.” We all got a collective chuckle out of that, and I replied that “They won’t do your dog any harm, let’s put it that way.” We hung up, and I went back to bed for a minute to hear what would happen next. Well, they played our conversation on the air, mystery solved.

I’d really enjoy doing a regular “spot” on a drive time radio show, answering questions about insects and arachnids from the listening public. Meanwhile, you can meet my over-the-phone friends Jennie and Blake at the website for 92.9 the Mountain, KWMT FM in Tucson.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Meet the Boettners

One of the great joys of entomology is getting to know other entomologists and their families. I was happily surprised to get a phone call from George “Jeff” Boettner recently, informing me that he and his wife were in Tucson to visit an in-law. Purely by chance, Jeff had met another friend of mine, Philip Kline, atop a butte on the edge of town. Philip mentioned that I lived in the city below, and suggested to Jeff that he look me up.

Jeff is a first-rate research entomologist at the University of Massachusetts where he studies tachinid flies and their hosts. His work has revealed startling evidence that exotic tachinids imported to combat invasive species like the gypsy moth have made a significant and terrible impact on both our native moths and our native species of tachinids. So effective are these introduced “generalist” tachinids that they outcompete the natives for hosts, driving them to extremely low population levels. Some endemic tachinid species may even be extinct, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Cynthia, Jeff’s wife, is a fine biologist in her own right, and is the Coordinator of the Invasive Plant Control Initiative at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge. She also helped found the New England Invasive Plant Group (NIPGro for those who like acronyms). This year she and Jeff will celebrate their twenty-ninth (29th!) wedding anniversary. They complement each other wonderfully, and are great company over dinner and in the field, as I came to find out last Thursday evening and Friday. Thank you, Jeff and Cynthia, for a terrific time at the Blue Willow and in Madera Canyon.

More March Bugs

Working on the internet for your job means that occasionally the server crashes. That is what happened in the early afternoon of Wednesday, March 11. Resuscitation of the network was not going to happen any time soon, so we were sent home early. This turned out to be a good thing, as the leisurely walk home on this sunny afternoon afforded opportunities to see what other insects are in the neighborhood now.

Even a little water goes a long way in the desert. I found this little checkered skipper, genus Pyrgus refreshing itself at a curbside puddle from the discarded part of a swamp cooler.

The creosote bushes are still blooming full throttle, and the bees love it. I took a string of what I thought were eight or ten great shots of this female Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, but only this one image was even remotely worthy of this blog! Interestingly, males of this species are entirely bright golden brown in color. They are not as common as the girls, though.

The creosotes also sport old galls, making it look like the branch sprouted a pom-pom. Go-o-o-o-o creosote! The abnormal growths are stimulated by the egg-laying activities of a tiny fly called a gall midge. The species in this case is Asphondylia auripila. The female’s larval offspring are thus sheltered and fed inside the profusion of tissue generated by the plant.

This is also the season for other young insects. The pallid-winged grasshopper, Trimerotropis pallidipennis, goes through “incomplete metamorphosis,” simply growing larger with each molt, finally attaining a full set of wings and reaching sexual maturity as an adult. One thing that remains constant, however, is the nearly perfect camouflage of this insect. Nymphs like this one are barely discernable among the pebbles and dry patches of soil.

Baby largid bugs (genus Largus) are absolutely everywhere. This little one was on the pad of a spineless ornamental prickly pear cactus. These nymphs sport a metallic blue-black wardrobe accented by a scarlet dot in the center of the back. I wish I could find such dynamic and fashionable apparel.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cochise County Bugs

On the way to visit Pat Sullivan and Lisa Lee in Sierra Vista (see “Bug Rooms”), Margarethe Brummermann and I stopped to explore a mesquite grassland habitat just off of Arizona State Route 83, about two miles south of its intersection with Interstate 10. The weather this day, March 7, was rather cool and blustery, albeit mostly sunny. The wind made finding insects and other arthropods something of a challenge.

The flora alone is quite spectacular, however. Take this yucca for example


The mesquites themselves were looking a bit gnarly, having suffered through a population explosion of “twig girdlers,” Oncideres rhodosticta. These are longhorned beetles in the family Cerambycidae. A female cuts a notch around the entire circumference of a twig, effectively killing the wood beyond the girdle. She then lays an egg in that doomed twig, and the larva that hatches bores inside. In this image, one can see both a girdle, and the broken end of the limb that resulted from a second girdle.

Many fishhook barrel cacti like this one were scattered among the mesquites. Careful inspection (VERY careful inspection) revealed that many of the folds in the succulent plant were occupied by leaf-footed bugs in the family Coreidae. Members of the genus Narnia were too quick and easily evaded my camera. Adult Chelinidea vittiger, or “opuntia bugs” were more cooperative.

The soil that supports this plant community is very rocky, and turning over some of the larger stones revealed a handful of hidden arthropods. The most spectacular was this centipede, Scolopendra polymorpha. At only about three inches long, it was far from a full-grown adult specimen. They are certainly formidable, agile predators at any size. The cool temperature was the only reason this image did not turn out as a motion blur.

I recommend visiting this unique habitat to any naturalist interested in exploring the many faces of the Sonoran Desert. It holds many secrets at any time of the year.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bug Rooms

There seems to be a new trend in the world of entomologists: “bug rooms.” A bug room is where an entomologist keeps his private collection, with space for curatorial work, bookshelves for keys and other references, and room left over for entertaining guests.

The weekend of March 7 and 8, Margarethe Brummermann and myself were privileged to be welcomed to the bug room of Pat Sullivan in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Here he is with Margarethe in just a portion of his spacious museum.

Besides a meticulously curated pinned collection of mostly scarab beetles, Pat has a number of live reptiles in terraria. Those snakes are a testament to the fact that he gives a great deal of care to living organisms, too. It was a real delight to share Pat’s enthusiasm for nature in general, and to relax outside of my own apartment (almost all of which, save the kitchen and bath, qualifies as a “bug room” by now). Thanks also go to Pat’s wife, Lisa Lee, who provided additional hospitality. Pat let me put some names on some of his beautifully prepared wasp and bee specimens, which was the least I could do in exchange for the wonderful accommodations. Thanks again Pat and Lisa.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Signs of Spring in Tucson

It is hard to believe that here in Tucson, Arizona spring has already gotten off to a fast start. Still, the signs are all around me, even if I look only at the insect life beginning to stir. Here are some of the creatures I photographed on March 5 and 6, on strangely overcast days while walking through the residential neighborhood between my apartment and office. Thanks to my friend Cheryl Malone for letting me borrow her Canon PowerShot SD1000 (Elph).

Harvester ants, genus Pogonomyrmex are literally doing spring cleaning, taking soil particles out of the nest and depositing them on the periphery. Soon there will be the familiar mounds sprouting like little volcanoes in lawns and vacant lots. We are nothing if not integrated here, and the black "Pogos" co-exist near colonies of the local red species.

Meanwhile, a parade of fungus-growing ants in the genus Acromyrmex were taking tiny bits of leaves back to the colony. Deep inside their subterranean nest they will turn the vegetation to mulch and grow a type of fungus that will serve as the main food for the ants. This fungus grows nowhere else, and the ants must maintain just the right humidity for it to prosper.

Spring is nesting season in general, and even these paper wasps, Polistes aurifer, have begun to set up housekeeping. Sh-h-h-h, don't tell anyone! This embryonic nest is on the ceiling of the alcove where the mailboxes are at my workplace. I'm hoping that no one but I will notice, so that I can follow their activities as the nest grows throughout the spring and summer months.

Once the sun goes down, the night shift takes over. Visitors to my apartment porch light on March 5 included this owlet moth, likely in the genus Euxoa.

Green lacewings in the family Chrysopidae are among the earliest insects to appear at lights at night here in mid-town Tucson. Some are indeed a lovely green color, while others tend to be darker and duller. Their delicate beauty is an added bonus: as larvae they are voracious predators of aphids and other pest insects.

I'm looking forward to seeing more insects awaken here; and I send my best wishes for spring's swift arrival in your part of the northern hemisphere. May my Australian and New Zealand friends enjoy a delightful fall!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How Did You Get Interested in "Bugs?"

People often ask me that question in a tone that suggests they cannot conceive how anyone could possibly find insects worthy of even fleeting concern. Trying to recognize the person has contempt for insects and notnecessarily the people who study them, I summon an answer. I used to rely on my mother’s memories of my childhood experiences, but I have discovered that my affinity for the six- and eight-legged runs deeper than simple appreciation of their diversity and beauty. I honestly empathize with the predicament of living in a world that bullies, belittles, and ignores living beings that are different, small, and misunderstood.

The agreed-upon account of my love affair with insects begins in kindergarten. I vividly remember the portrait of a trapdoor spider outlined on the chalkboard by the teacher. She called it a “torpedo spider,” and considering its habit of speeding to the mouth of its burrow to ambush prey, the name was entirely appropriate. Our class also studied dinosaurs, birds, reptiles, the whole spectrum of the animal kingdom. It was all fascinating, and stimulated my curiosity and sense of wonder like nothing else.

What truly stands out, however, is what specific animals I most closely identified with. Sharks (before they were cool), bats, birds of prey, and snakes were among my favorites. They also shared something in common with insects and spiders: most people feared, hated, or were repulsed by those critters. These organisms were outcasts of human sentimentality, and that is also how I felt.

Throughout grade school, as my parents engaged in constant verbal combat, and my peers were ignoring me, teasing me, or terrorizing me, I felt unable to stand up for myself, assert my right to a conflict-free environment, and gain self-confidence. Instead, I transferred my feelings to insects. I could champion arthropods as examples of durability in the face of continual challenges.

I am not a physically large person, either, so I can also relate to being small and easily overlooked and intimidated. I almost envied the insect, snug in its crack or crevice, the torpedo spider insulated in its tube. Most of the big, powerful, aggressive, mean and nasty animals walk by without even seeing them.

On the positive side, my enthusiasm for the small world did lead me to many adults who have served as mentors and positive role models. I was even invited to join a mostly professional society of entomologists when I was only eleven or twelve years of age. This experience finally gave me, an only child, a sense of belonging, and helped turn the hobby of insect collecting into the career of entomology.

Would I trade it all just to be “normal?” I suspect that my passion for “bugs” is as much a part of me as my arms and legs. Some folks say they never chose their passion or vocation, but say that it chose them instead. I tend to agree. There’s no turning back now.