Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Wasp Wednesday: Another Puzzler

A good many people mistake me for an expert who knows everything about every insect known to man, but I am not. Thankfully, there are entomologists like Doug Yanega who do seem to know everything, but he would be the first to deny that claim as well. Still, I have learned more from him than I can possibly recount. Case in point a wasp that had me scratching my head over the weekend.

This all started out innocently enough. I was down at Chico Basin Ranch, a sprawling 88,000 acre cattle ranch that straddles the El Paso and Pueblo County line on the high plains, looking for grasshoppers with several other members of the Mile High Bug Club and the general public. At our first stop out on the heavily-grazed shortgrass prairie, one of the first insects that got my attention was a small, maybe 20 millimeter-long, slender black-and-red wasp that was running erratically between patches of grass.

I had it pegged as either a thread-waisted wasp in the family Sphecidae, or a spider wasp in the family Pompilidae, both of which behave in this manner as they search for potential prey. I did not have the camera set for speeding Hymenoptera, so the images are a bit blurry. Now I am wishing I had spent more time with this creature, but hindsight is twenty-twenty. I do not recall the wasp ever flying, but I figured a close approach might send it fleeing permanently.

Back at home, reviewing the magnified images on my computer, I quickly decided I had no clue at all as to what I was looking at. It seemed to be a fusion of the two potential suspects I had surmised initially. So, off to the "Hymenopterists Forum" on Facebook I went. Posting the images there got me several "likes," but no one ventured an identification. Enter Doug Yanega, a good friend and colleague from the University of California at Riverside. He is always willing to help others online and in person, and the university's collection is so well organized that he can use it as a reference for cases like mine.

"I just recalled the other name I was thinking of: Pterombrus rufiventris (now in Thynnidae). I can't find any photos of it online, but I caught one in Kansas once and it had me stumped for a while," wrote Doug. Well, nice to know I'm not the only one who has been baffled by this species. Doug went on to add "Just checked our collection, this is Pterombrus rufiventris, and it attacks cicindeline larvae. Very rare but widely distributed. No photos in BugGuide."

It is no wonder that I did not recognize it, because the most common thynnid wasps are in the genus Myzinum, and they look nothing like this. See my blog post on those here.

The Large Grassland Tiger Beetle, Cicindela obsoleta is one known host for this wasp.

Cicindelines are known commonly as tiger beetles, colorful and active predators in their own right. The larval stage typically lives in a vertical burrow with a diameter just barely large enough to accommodate the grub. The larva has a flattened head that is held flush with the top of the burrow, the better to see, lunge after, and seize any unsuspecting insect that happens by. The victim is then dragged into the burrow to be consumed. A wasp has to have a lot of bravery to take on one of these voracious beasts, armed as they are with large and powerful jaws. True, the wasp does have her stinger, and I can only imagine how deftly she must wield it to be successful.

According to field observations by others, the wasp crawls down the burrow of the tiger beetle larva and stings it repeatedly under the head or thorax, before depositing an egg on the grub's abdomen. The mother wasp then plugs the burrow with a solid, compacted layer of soil, and then fills in the remainder of the burrow above the plug with loose soil particles. Her egg hatches in about 3 days, and the wasp grub that emerges grows by feeding on the tiger beetle larva for almost 9 days. The mature wasp larva then detaches from the now-deceased host and spins a cocoon in the burrow of the host. There it overwinters, emerging the following summer with the monsoon rains of July.

Indeed, this year Colorado has seen extraordinarily heavy precipitation from severe storms. Timing is everything, and I consider myself lucky to have crossed paths with this rare insect. These are perhaps the first images online of the species. Keep your eyes out for this, the western subspecies P. rufiventris hyalinatus, and the eastern subspecies P. r. rufiventris, from southern California to Texas, and on to Georgia and Virginia.

Sources: Knisley, C. Barry, Darren L. Reeves, and Gregory T. Stephens. 1989. "Behavior and Development of the Wasp Pterombrus rufiventris hyalinatus Krombein (Hymenoptera: Tiphiidae), a Parasite of Larval Tiger Beetles (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae)," Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 91(2): pp. 179-184.
Krombein, Karl V., et al. 1979. Catalog of Hymenoptera in America North of Mexico Volume 2. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1199-2209.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Why I Don't Give Pest Control Advice

Casual visitors to my blog often seek pest control advice in the comments of posts about insects or spiders they themselves have encountered. There are several reasons why I do not discuss pest control, and it is probably high time I outlined them here.

Liability

Commercial insecticide manufacturers and pest control companies ("exterminators") have entire teams of lawyers to prevent, fight, and settle litigation filed against them when customers misuse or fail to fully understand their products or services. Indeed, the public regularly misapplies over-the-counter products resulting in poisoning of family members or pets or, in the case of foggers ("bug bombs"), fail to extinguish a pilot light and set fire to their property or blow their house up. Besides the injuries and/or damage, misapplication of insecticides is a federal offense.

Meanwhile, there are also the pest control equivalents of snake oil salesmen who promise "organic" controls that are ineffective at best, or outright fraudulent at worst. Products such as ultrasonic repellent devices are known by entomologists to be useless; and "bug zappers" kill far more beneficial insects with next to no impact on mosquitoes.

As a writer who is essentially a sole proprietor volunteering factual information, there is no way I can possibly absorb the financial impact of a lawsuit should someone misinterpret pest control advice or product endorsement.

My mission is Teaching Tolerance of Arthropods

Those who follow this blog know and understand that the entire purpose of the content here is to educate the public and foster an appreciation and tolerance of insects, spiders, and other arthropods. Focusing only on the negative impacts some species sometimes have on humanity would not accomplish that goal. There is enough misinformation and media sensationalism already. It is a tide I can barely swim against. Some people I will never "convert" or even reach, but I like the idea that I can provide ammunition for others to argue the overwhelming benefits of arthropod diversity and healthy ecosystems, be they natural, agricultural, or urban or suburban.

"I got you a gig at Al's Produce and a world tour with Union Carbide"

I Do Preach Prevention

Those rare posts I devote to household and garden pests usually include tips for preventing pest issues. Pests are largely our own creation. We provide them with their favorite foods. We give them shelter. We collectively import them accidentally or intentionally from other parts of the world in commerce, including nursery stock (plants). We apply pesticides to which they develop resistance. We compromise native habitats and ecosystems through use of non-native plants in landscaping, overuse of herbicides that destroy food plants for beneficial insects, and insist on large areas of sterile lawns.

It is only by altering our own mindset, or at least our behaviors, that we can coexist with other organisms, and discourage visits by species that can cause us harm. Prevention is the act of executing those proactive, low-cost or no-cost strategies, in contrast to being reactive, at a high financial and emotional cost, when a population of insects or arachnids gets out of control.

There Are Other Sources for Pest Control Information

The smart consumer looks to unbiased sources of information for pest control, as they do when purchasing any product or service. Online, you should be consulting ".edu" websites that originate at colleges and universities. They have no stake in the stock of a company, and because they are educational institutions, they are mandated to provide information to the public. The Cooperative Extension Service has long been a leader in urban and agricultural pest management, but has fallen on hard times with funding cutbacks from the government. Still, pursue that option. There is usually an extension agent office located in whatever town serves as your county seat.

Remember the public health department is a valuable resource for control of insects that affect public health, such as mosquitoes, other biting insects, filth flies, and cockroaches. Contact them, and take them a specimen of the organism that is problematic for you.

Pest control technicians are the last people you should trust for making an accurate identification of a troublesome insect. I cut them a little slack because their first, and often only, priority is to comply with state and federal regulations in chemical pesticide application. Few technicians are properly schooled in entomology, and that is a disservice to the consumer.

#$%!* termites!

Social media outlets vary widely (and wildly) in terms of legitimate, educated advice and identification of insects and spiders. Some Facebook groups are better moderated than others.

Use the "Forum" Tab on This Page

You are certainly welcome to click on the "forum" tab at the top of this page and ask questions and upload images of your mystery "bugs." I'll do the best I can to identify your creature, and direct you to additional informative resources. Thank you.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

One of These is Not Like the Others....

Sometimes, even with your book-learned knowledge, it takes you a moment to recognize something when you see it firsthand. Such was the case when my wife and I encountered a softball-sized nest of the Aerial Yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaria, under the eave of a small building in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, on July 10. Worker wasps were coming and going as they should, but another wasp was periodically emerging, too, and it was not like the others.

The other wasp was larger than the workers, and instead of being black and yellow, it was black and white. It eventually dawned on me that I was witnessing a social parasite in action. The black and white wasp was a female Dolichovespula arctica (aka Dolichovespula adulterina). Her species has no worker caste like the Aerial Yellowjacket, only reproductive females, and males.

The Aerial Yellowjacket is the primary host species for this social parasite. The D. arctica female infiltrates an existing colony of the host, when it is underway but before worker wasps have emerged from the pupa stage. The parasite does not usually kill the host queen immediately, but waits until she has produced a fair number of workers. She may also evict the queen, or follow her around and eat the eggs she lays in the cells of the paper comb. By the time workers of the host species have matured, they serve as a workforce to raise the offspring of the social parasite. It is a subtle form of slavery of which the host species seems unaware.

Why the female D. arctica repeatedly emerged from the interior of the nest to wander around on the exterior paper envelope is a mystery to me. Perhaps the workers tolerate her only for short periods, and her foreign scent would overwhelm the normal colony odor if she lingered longer inside?

The parasite is probably fairly common, but seldom seen. The species ranges from Alaska and throughout Canada save for the Nunavut Province, south to the northern U.S. and along major mountain ranges to Kentucky, Georgia, Arizona, and California. It appears to be limited to high elevation coniferous forest habitats here in Colorado; and that is probably the case over much of the United States.

Lest you feel saddened about the fate of the host colony, remember that worker yellowjackets are still capable of laying unfertilized eggs that ultimately give rise to males of the species. So, the host colony can still reproduce, but is limited to liberating only males during the late summer reproductive season.

Take a moment when you encounter insect activity, what it reveals over even a short period of time may surprise you. Even nests of social wasps can be approached quite closely, as long as you do not jar the nest or otherwise create hostile vibrations. I had to get very close with my camera because my flash was not working. Not once was I even harassed by a worker wasp.

Sources: Akre, Roger D. et al. 1980. Yellowjackets of America North of Mexico. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Handbook No. 552, 102 pp.
Buck, M., Marshall, S.A. and Cheung D.K.B. 2008. Identification Atlas of the Vespidae (Hymenoptera, Aculeata) of the northeastern Nearctic region. Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification No. 5: 492 pp. (PDF version). Published on 19 February 2008.
Evans, Howard E. and Mary Jane West Eberhard. 1970. The Wasps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 265 pp.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: What Are You Doing Up There, You Spider?

It takes a special kind of parent to turn their child's experiences and perspective into a book for other children and their parents, but Peter O'Brien succeeds with the 26-page book What Are You Doing Up There, You Spider?. Together with illustrator Carlo Sitaro, he delivers a captivating story that also introduces children to spider biology and behavior.

I know Peter's wife, Louise Lynch, and when she approached me to have a look at the book I was a bit skeptical. Peter is best known for excellence in filmmaking, including directing, but I was not familiar with his writing skills. If this children's book is any indication, he is an exceptionally versatile creative person. The story is true right down to the speech patterns of young children. I initially found the book title awkward, and I kept omitting the second "you" in the title when I read it; but that is exactly how children talk, and I could easily imagine each encounter of the human character, Liam, with the spider.

The rhyming style of the text is sophisticated and sometimes oblique, which I find refreshing. The author clearly assumes his audience is up to the challenge, and does not "dumb down" the prose and poetry. This book achieves both vocabulary lessons and cultivates an appreciation of spiders, even indoors where they are generally not welcome. The book inspires curiosity and observation, admirable qualities in human beings of any age. Parents will learn as much as their children from this book.

Liam is inspired by a real-life Liam, nephew to Louise, and I suspect that the fictional character is true to his living inspiration. I see a little of myself in Liam, too, from when I was a curious child.

Juvenile literature about natural history subjects is too often fraught with errors, or presented in a less-than-enthralling manner, or both. This is a unique introduction to arachnids in story form that will not frighten children, but encourage them to seek their own discoveries.

What Are You Doing Up There, You Spider? is available in paper for $9.95 U.S. through Create Space; and also through Amazon for an electronic Kindle copy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

White Prairie Clover: An Awesome Blossom

I am not a botanist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am pretty sure that the insect magnets in the shortgrass prairie field up the hill from my home here in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are White Prairie Clover, Dalea candida. What follows is a sampling of the many bees, wasps, butterflies, flies, and other insects that come to the flowers of this plant; and a little information on Dalea in general. Much of the pollinator enhancement literature touts Purple Prairie Clover, D. purpurea, so one has to dive deeper.

A cuckoo bee, Nomada sp., forages while a male sweat bee, Lasioglossum sp., approaches

Prairie clovers are in the pea family Fabaceae. White Prairie Clover in Colorado occurs from 3,400-7,200 feet in elevation, and blooms from June to August. It is a low-growing plant, flowers on stalks up to two feet tall, but the ones I see are no more than one foot tall and sometimes difficult to discern among the tall grasses, cacti, and yucca they share the prairie habitat with. This species is widespread from the Front Range across the Great Plains, north to Saskatchewan and Wisconsin, and as far east as Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Common Checkered-skipper, Pyrgus communis

The flowers are arranged in a cone, and bloom from the bottom to the top. The cycle can last up to a month, providing insects with pollen and nectar over a longer period than most flowers, and often at a time when few other plants are blooming. The down side to this plant, from the perspective of the photographer/entomologist is that insects quickly move to the side of the flower opposite the photographer, where they are hidden from view, then fly to another florescence and repeat. I missed a good number of opportunities because insects move across the flowers so speedily.

Male Hunt's Bumble Bee, Bombus huntii

Bees of all stripes seem to enjoy White Prairie Clover, and male bees may visit not only for nectar but for mating opportunities with foraging females. I saw far more male sweat bees, Lasioglossum (subgenus Dialictus), for example, than I did females. Even male bees can be sufficiently hairy enough to perform pollination services, even though they are not gathering pollen to feed to offspring. This is especially true for bumble bees and longhorned bees.

Sweat bee, family Halictidae

Female mining bee, Calliopsis sp.

Male longhorned bee, tribe Eucerini, family Apidae

Cuckoo bee, Triepeolus sp.

A second species of Triepeolus

Butterflies visit the flowers, too, mostly for nectar, but the caterpillar stage of some species feeds on the foliage of Dalea. This is the case for the Southern Dogface, a rather scarce species here in Colorado. In addition to the butterflies shown here, I also spotted a Variegated Fritillary making a brief stop on a blossom.

A "crescent" butterfly, Phyciodes sp.

Two Reakirt's Blues, Echinargus isola

At least one moth visited White Prairie Clover during my two separate observations: the Jaguar Flower Moth, Schinia jaguarina.

Jaguar Flower Moth, Schinia jaguarina

Wasps were highly diverse and plentiful visitors, but made some of the shortest refueling stops of all the insects observed.

Great Golden Digger wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus

Thread-waisted wasp, Ammophila pictipennis

Female Ammophila procera

Male Ammophila procera

Ammophila ferruginosa

Black & Yellow Mud Dauber, Sceliphron caementarium

Male sand wasp, Bembix sp.

Male beetle-killer wasp, Cerceris sp.

Male beewolf wasp, Philanthus ventilabris

Male thynnid wasp, Myzinum sp.

Female thynnid wasp, Myzinum sp.

Cuckoo sand wasp, Stizoides renicinctus

Flowers that are attractive to pollinators are also attractive to their predators and parasites, and that was certainly obvious during my watch periods. The bee assassin, Apiomerus sp., was somewhat surprising because the bug is so conspicuous atop such a small flower. I suspect it was having little or no success. Meanwhile, the odd, cream-colored ambush bug, Phymata sp., could achieve proper concealment, even to the point that I recall seeing only one when there were surely many.

Bee assassin bug, Apiomerus sp.

Thick-headed flies accost bees or wasps in mid-air and ram an egg between the victim's abdominal plates. The fly larva that hatches then feeds as an internal parasite. This often kills the host, but not always.

Thick-headed fly, Zodion sp.

Thick-headed fly, Physocephala sp.

My personal experience is that white flowers, or at least pale flowers, attract a far greater diversity of insects than red, blue, or purple flowers, and even more than yellow flowers in some cases. It is puzzling to me that few pollinator advocates bother to reveal that fact. Maybe because everything is bee- and butterfly-centered, and still color-intensive in the landscaping sense, white flowers get short shrift in recommendations for the garden.

Grasshopper wasp, Prionyx atratus or Prionyx subatratus

It may be worth it to harvest seeds from wild plants, but please do not dig up mature White Prairie Clover. The plant has a deep taproot. One may also wish to consult their state's Native Plant Society for potential sources of seed. The plant flourishes in full sun and dry soils, requiring only a medium quantity of water.

Green-eyed wasp, Tachytes sp.

I will try and produce more floral-themed, pollinator-rich posts in the future to help readers in making landscaping decisions that support native plants as opposed to exotic ornamentals and inappropriate cultivars. Feel free to make suggestions as to additional resources.

Mason wasp, Euodynerus sp.

Sources: Holm, Heather. 2017. Bees: An Identification Guide and Native Plant Forage Guide. Minnetonka, Minnesota: Pollination Press LLC. 224 pp. Useful mostly for Upper Midwest U.S.
Mader, Eric, et al. 2011. Attracting Native Pollinators. North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing. 372 pp. A Xerces Society guide.
EasternColoradoWildflowers
WildflowerDotOrg
Prairie Nursery

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Note to Pest Control Companies Trying to Use This Blog for Personal Gain

I have the "moderate comments" option on this blog fully operational, to eliminate spam, profanity, and other rude comments. Overwhelmingly, the offenders whose comments I swat most often are representatives of pest control companies that are seeking free advertising by including a link to their website and, maybe, a token compliment on a given post. I have a few words for these folks.

Those kind souls who actually take the time to read my blog understand that I never give pest control advice, for many reasons. Number one, the whole intention of this blog is to create a better understanding and appreciation of arthropods, and change attitudes from a "kill first, ask questions later" mentality to one of tolerance and pest prevention. Number two, I must reduce my own liability and vulnerability to legal action for dispensing advice that could go horribly wrong. My own financial protection has to be a concern, though I wish it was not necessary. Pest control companies have this as their number one priority, or they should. Lastly, my goal is to save my readers from unnecessary expenditures for pest control professionals, over-the-counter chemical treatments, and bogus products like "ultrasonic" repellent devices. They are largely a waste of money.

Another tactic that pest control companies have is to contact me suggesting that "your readers may be interested in x-subject or y-product or z-service," can you please post what amounts to a guest blog post on our company's behalf. No thank you. Pest control companies that are truly responsible, more customer-centered and less profit-crazed, and that honestly care about the environmental consequences of pest control, are welcome to e-mail me to discuss potential advertising on my blog. Advertising they would pay for, demonstrating their like-minded commitment to an educated consumer base. You better come armed with an A+ Better Business Bureau rating, and a host of customer recommendations, too. Naturally, I would be doing my own background checks to make sure our philosophies mesh.

Please note that my current blog sponsors are BioQuip Products and After Bite products, both of which are independent businesses that are pro-outdoor recreation and discovery and education. "Bug Eric" is all about encouraging readers to at least periodically unplug and go out and observe the natural world, be it their own backyard or a jungle, desert, or savanna overseas, or somewhere between those two extremes. This blog is also about understanding how the natural world works, understanding the place of all organisms in it, including Homo sapiens, and to encourage a more peaceful relationship with other creatures.

You are welcome to approach me for consideration of advertising space if your business reflects the values and intentions I have just described. Otherwise, please spare me your spam comments and requests for guest blogs. I would appreciate having more time to address legitimate topics and concerns here. Thank you.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Donation Day

This past Tuesday, June 27, I donated my insect collection, all 115 Cornell drawers and 13 Schmidt boxes, if I counted correctly. The recipient institution is the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They made a good case when myself and several other members of the Mile High Bug Club toured their new state-of-the-art collections facility a couple years ago. Oddly, I did not have mixed emotions about the move. It was time.

Frank (left) and Jeff (right) happily departing with my insect collection

Jeff Stephenson, Collections Manager in the Zoology Department, and Dr. Frank Krell, Senior Curator of Entomology, came down to my home with a U-Haul van and we set to work loading it up. Much to my delight, they even took the cabinets the drawers were in, so that our spare bedroom is now much, much roomier.

Heidi never complained about my collection, in fact she has been very supportive, unlike some spouses or girlfriends of entomologists, so I have heard anyway. Still, it is a relief to have this burden lifted, like a proverbial albatross around one's neck. I did not have space to work on further organizing the specimens, and they were doing no one any good locked up in my home. Once integrated into the museum's collection, they will be available for loan to scientists researching different genera and species. They may eventually be imaged and put into a growing online database accessible to everyone, not just scientists. That pleases me greatly.

One does get a few perks when they make a donation of scientific specimens. There is some brief acclaim or notoriety when the museum makes public its acquisition of your material. This will take the form of a blog post and maybe a newsletter blurb sent to museum patrons and volunteers. Then there is the tax write-off. This will be interesting because the museum can only count specimens and give an overall description of the collection's condition, not an appraisal. Even that can take weeks if not months, understandably. Thankfully, the entomological community is full of people who have experience in such matters. Meanwhile, Heidi and I have not itemized, taking the Standard Deduction instead, so that will be another adventure, possibly worthy of another trip to a tax expert for our returns next year.

I did not donate the collection for any of those gratuities. I did it to further free myself from the label of "bug guy," and continue my growth as a writer and artist. I did it to continue downsizing my possessions, which become increasingly burdensome as one ages. Simplicity and travel take priority more and more, and I find myself wishing I had done this sooner. I'd rather visit friends and make new ones than collect more specimens. Some of my colleagues still reprimand me, if kindly, for failing to take specimens I have photographed in their habitat. Some discoveries can only be properly documented with a voucher: the creature itself.

I do wish that donating my collection would cure me of my "trophy mentality," the need to provide proof that my time spent afield is worth something, not just a "hobby" or trivial pursuit. I sometimes wonder whether a suntan is some people's proof of status that they can afford to vacation frequently, an almost literal badge of affluence.

When "citizen science" became a....thing, I found myself lamenting that volunteers were putting real scientists out of work. I still think that is true to a degree, but now there are platforms on the internet that allow people to make real, concrete contributions to scientific knowledge. Those databases need refinement to be sure, but it is a step in the right direction, and it is a wonderful tool in recruiting a new generation of scientists, and launching whole new careers for retired folks. I am proud to be a part of that community, whether I am considered an authority or not. It is a constant learning curve, and I am happy to help those behind me, as others ahead of me generously lend me a hand in return.

I am looking forward to the next chapter in my life, however it unfolds, and happy to conclude this one, which began seriously when I was about twelve years old. I heartily recommend the process of self-evaluation and charitable donation. It is a sign that you are a responsible, adult human being who can think beyond himself.