Friday, October 12, 2018

Remembering National Moth Week 2018

A tiger moth, Apantesis sp., from Lyons, Colorado, July 22.

Today it is cold, foggy, and there is still some snow leftover from yesterday here in Colorado Springs. What better time to look back on warmer times and the insects that could be found back then? National Moth Week this year was July 21-29. Despite the fact there was a full moon during that period (the worst possible conditions for putting out a blacklight because the lunar light is literally superior competition that nocturnal insects navigate by), we had very interesting results along the Front Range.

A leaf blotch miner moth, Caloptilia sp., from Chico Basin Ranch on July 21.

As has been the case for at least three years now, the Mile High Bug Club sponsored and executed local events during National Moth Week. Weather conditions varied considerably, as that time of year represents our season of almost daily storms, but we persevered and accumulated good data sets from casual observations and imaging. We posted most of our images to iNaturalist, and anyone can search by location and date for the results.

This large Carolina Sphinx moth, Manduca quinquemaculatus, showed up at Chico Basin Ranch on July 21.

For the second year in a row we kicked off the week on Saturday, July 21, at Chico Basin Ranch, a sprawling 80,000+ acre parcel that straddles the El Paso and Pueblo County line. This year we were again on the El Paso County side, setting up our lights at the bird banding station composed of a building and a nearby barn.

Emerald geometer moth and friends, Chico Basin Ranch

Almost immediately we attracted moths, beetles, true bugs, flies, and other insects to our blacklights and mercury vapor light. Thanks to being located well away from water, we were not inundated with caddisflies, variegated mud-loving beetles, and other aquatic insects like we were last year; so, the night was much more comfortable and we did not inhale any insects accidentally, nor take that many home in our vehicles.

Rufous-banded Crambid moth, Mimoschinia rufofascialis, Chico Basin Ranch

Insect diversity in general was very good, in a year in which overall insect abundance has been exceptionally low. The diversity of habitats at the ranch, most natural and some man-made, has much to do with the biodiversity of insects, birds, and other wildlife found there.

An owlet moth, Grotella septempunctata, from Cheyenne Mountain State Park, July 24.

Our second of four events was on Tuesday, July 24, at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just south of Colorado Springs off of Highway 115. The park always welcomes us and adds our events to their schedule for the campers in the park to enjoy. Indeed, we had a respectable, if brief, turnout from visitors. Many families had children that were either up past their bedtimes already (especially those from different time zones), or were easily bored, or both.

Ilia Underwing moth, Catocala ilia, from Bear Creek Nature Center, July 27.

Our third event was Friday, July 27, at Bear Creek Nature Center in Bear Creek Regional Park, and it included a presentation on moths by yours truly. We had a very good public turnout, but the weather was absolutely miserable. At least the rain stopped by the end of the talk so that we could deploy our lights on the deck out back. Thankfully, a large underwing moth made an appearance, and even stayed long enough for everyone to get a look. Most of the other moths were small and difficult to see on the stucco-textured exterior of the building.

Artichoke Plume Moth, Platyptilia carduidactylus, at Bear Creek Nature Center, July 27.

We were back at Cheyenne Mountain State Park for our concluding event on July 28. Once again we had questionable weather, and zero attendance from the public. Still, if you light it up, they (moths) will come, and that night was no exception.

Jaguar Flower Moth, Schinia jaguarina, at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, July 28.

My wife and I also took a weekend trip to Lyons, Colorado, north of Boulder (northwest of Longmont), July 22-24. We stayed at Stone Mountain Lodge and Cabins, and did our blacklighting there. The wooded area, with cliffs rising above the lodge, along with landscape trees, shrubs, and plants, supported quite a diversity of moths and other insects, even given the unseasonably cool, damp weather.

A twirler moth, Aristotelia sp., from Lyons, Colorado on July 22.

Next year, Mile High Bug Club may opt to do fewer events during the designated National Moth Week to avoid stormy weather. Here along the Front Range we seem to have two peaks in moth diversity and abundance: One in mid- to late June, the other in about mid-September. Obviously, one goal of the national event is to remain consistent in the timing and location of observations to note trends in abundance and diversity over time. That may not always be a true reflection everywhere, though. The chief goal of our bug club events is to simply recruit new members of the public to an appreciation of the butterflies of the night.

Owlet moth, Andropolia theodori, from Lyons, Colorado, August 23.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Coming in October....

Fighting Flame Skimmer dragonfly males

Several new posts will be coming to this blog in October. You can look forward to a diversity of topics aimed at a variety of audiences. It is easier for me to write during the colder months of the calendar year without the distracting urge to be outdoors observing insects and spiders, so expect a few more posts in general through the winter.

"Don't Try This at Home" will feature the drawbacks of do-it-yourself pest control using over-the-counter products.

"Why I No Longer Collect" will discuss my personal reasons for not collecting insect and spider specimens, which may give aspiring young scientists and hobbyists reasons to pause.

"A Couple of Weirdos" will highlight some surprising species discovered by accident during the past summer.

"Remembering National Moth Week" will revisit the excitement of putting out blacklights in various locations in Colorado this past July.

There will be other posts that spotlight the few trips we took close to home and far away this year in search of insects and other wildlife. Additionally, I plan to feature posts that offer tips on circumstances and situations that are not to be missed if you want to find unique insects; and how to get images of insects and spiders engaged in various behaviors.

So, grab that pumpkin spice beverage and prepare to be engrossed next month. That's different from just "grossed." It means "captivated," "enthralled." I'll do my best to live up to your anticipation.

Friday, September 7, 2018

No Exterminator Necessary

Modified from © Pests.org

If this blog is successful at achieving only one thing, let it be a widespread understanding that you almost never need a pest control service. Here is your one stop post for how to tell if you need a service, and what you can do instead.

Just Passing Through

Every household, business, and workplace will have the occasional insect or spider visiting. Arthropods are masters at finding their way through the tiniest crack, crevice, hole, or other access point, which they hope will lead them to greener pastures, not indoors. They are not out to get you and they are not a sign that you are in for more creatures like them. It is usually a one-time event. Do not panic and dial up an exterminator.

One recent scientific study found that the average home is occupied, at one point in time or another, by somewhere between 30 and 200 species of insects, arachnids, and related arthropods. Still no reason for fear. In fact, the greater the biodiversity the better. It is a sign that your home is not sterile, but running on all natural cylinders. Most insects are so small you do not even notice them anyway.

The Pest Control "Racket"

While most pest control enterprises are ethical and fair, here are some points to consider:

  • The technicians that visit your location are usually not entomologists trained to properly identify pests. They are schooled almost exclusively in proper application of insecticides to insure compliance with state and federal regulations.
  • It is in the best interest of a pest control company to identify as a pest any insect that concerns you, regardless of whether it is a pest.
  • Most pest control companies require a contract that guarantees repeated visits to your premises. Think about that. We expect plumbers and electricians to do the job right the first time.
  • When was the last time a "product" or "service" solved anything? In the case of pest species the answer is almost never. The best solution is prevention and attitude adjustment.

You DO Need a Service When....

There are some situations in which you do need professional help. Those are:

  • Bed Bugs are challenging for professionals, let alone do-it-yourselfers, and you will need to find a reputable company to deal with them.
  • Structural pests like termites and carpenter ants. Make sure, however, that you are not mistaking an outdoor swarm event for an indoor infestation. A termite inspection is usually a requirement for home sale and purchase. Find an unbiased agent to conduct that inspection. Request an inspection if you suspect a termite or carpenter ant infestation before employing a pest control company.
  • Social bee or wasp nest in a troublesome location. Always employ a bee removal service if you find a nest in a location that impedes your day-to-day life. Otherwise, note the location of the nest so you can simply avoid it. In most regions of North America, nests of yellowjackets, paper wasps, and the European Hornet are not perpetual, nor re-used the following year. Feral honey bee hives are perennial.
  • Cockroach infestations that have reached extreme population levels. It is important to note that cockroaches have only been implicated in transmission of bacteria, never proven. Prolonged exposure to dense populations of cockroaches, their shed exoskeletons and feces may trigger allergies and asthma in some people, especially children in multi-family dwellings. Insist on a pest control service that uses baits rather than sprays for a longer-lasting, near permanent effect instead of repeated visits to spray insecticides.

The Cure is Prevention

Here are some ways to reduce the potential for pest problems in your home:

  • Repair worn weatherstripping on doors and repair holes in window screens (or replace them).
  • Seal all cracks and crevices, including around places where pipes and electrical conduits enter or leave the home. Pack steel wool into such situations, use caulking elsewhere.
  • Inspect all objects coming indoors from outside, especially plants, firewood, toys, gardening tools....Inspect new plants before you leave the nursery or store.
  • Do not reach your extremities into locations you cannot see into. Be careful moving items out of long-term storage to avoid spider bites, disturbing a wasp or bee nest, etc.
  • Do not leave clothing, gloves, or footwear outdoors overnight, nor in the garage or shed. It never hurts to shake out shoes and clothes anyway.
  • Reduce outdoor lighting or employ motion-sensors or bulbs that are less attractive to nocturnal insects. This will also discourage spiders from stringing their webs across your front and back doors.
  • Never stack firewood against the side of your home, as this will help termites and carpenter ants to become established. Reconsider wood mulch as groundcover.
  • Learn tips for how to avoid bed bugs in your travels and thrift store shopping. Entomologists estimate that soon one out of every four homes will have bed bugs.

Treatment for You!

Nobody wants to hear the suggestion that maybe they are the source of a problem, but sometimes that can be the case. Please seek professional help if you have phobias of insects (entomophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), or related creatures. It will save you a great deal of money and emotional turmoil to go that route. Otherwise, visit an entomologist for a gentle "attitude adjustment." We can cite example after example of the beneficial qualities of insects and the potentially disastrous effects of continued addiction to chemical pest treatments.

Please feel free to share this post widely. I also welcome comments, even dissenting opinions, as long as they are worded in polite language. Everyone deserves to make a living, and we will always need pest control services for situations where every other alternative has been exhausted.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Stop This Meme

Here at Bug Eric, I have better things to do with my time than constantly fight wave after wave of misinformation, superstition, and outright hoaxes. The latest is this one purporting that a "new" and "deadly" spider has invaded North America. Utter nonsense!

The spider depicted in the images is the very much harmless Woodlouse Hunter, Dysdera crocata. This spider is originally from the Mediterranean region of Europe, but made its way to North America ages ago, not recently. Yes, it has wicked-looking jaws and fangs, which are used solely to turn over its roly-poly and sowbug prey so that it can inflict a lethal bite on its food, not on human beings. The venom of this spider has not been scientifically proven to be the least bit dangerous to the average, healthy person.

"But, but...." you say, citing the watermark on one of the images in the meme as being from the University of Nebraska. Surely we can trust our institutes of higher learning, right? Yes, but not if their image has been stolen by some malicious individual out for hits on his or her own website. The university should consider filing suit against whoever is using this image. There are laws against copyright infringement, which is what is happening here. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) exists to protect our "works" from unscrupulous individuals who seek to profit from our efforts at education and enlightenment.

By sharing this meme, and others like it, without doing due diligence of fact-checking (a quick check on Snopes would have yielded the truth about this one), serves only to perpetuate ignorance at best, and participate in crimes of "fake news" and, in this case, copyright violation. Stop it.

© Jenn Rose #jennrosefx

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Pseudoscorpions: The Strangest Arachnids?

Yes, the image below is of a crane fly in the family Limoniidae, but what is that other thing attached to it? The crane fly showed up at our backyard blacklight a few nights ago in Colorado Springs, and by itself would have been interesting. Its hitchhiking companion made it even more spectacular.

Crane fly with pseudoscorpion gripping its leg

Pseudoscorpions are tiny arachnids, most of them under five millimeters in length, that never fail to provoke head-scratching among people unfamiliar with them. They look like they could be baby scorpions that are missing their telson ("tail"), but they are literally in an order unto themselves: Pseudoscorpiones. They are fairly common, but seldom seen because they frequent microhabitats under bark on trees, stumps, and logs, or leaf litter or topsoil, or in mammal nests or caves, or other places that require a dedicated effort to uncover them. It is only those species that occasionally turn up in our "caves" (homes) that catch our attention.

I wrote about pseudoscorpions previously, for Missouri Conservationist magazine, thanks to fantastic photographs by Ashley Bradford and Ted MacRae, but this week's find finally allowed me my own imaging opportunities. It is interesting that the insects favored as transportation by pseudoscorpions are frequently those associated with decaying wood: longhorned wood-boring beetles (Cerambycidae), braconid wasps that are parasites of wood-boring beetles, and in this case a female crane fly which I would bet oviposits (lays eggs) in decaying wood.

Pseudoscorpions are predatory on other small invertebrates such as springtails, barklice, fly larvae, and mites. They seize their prey with the pincer-like chelae at the ends of their "arms." Those heavy, muscular appendages are actually modified mouthparts called pedipalps. Many species of pseudoscorpions have venom glands in the chelae that help subdue struggling victims. From there, the prey is passed to the plier-like chelicerae, or jaws, that puncture the body wall of the prey, or crush it, and allow for the introduction of regurgitated enzymes to begin the extraoral digestive process. The resulting liquified material is then ingested by the pseudoscorpion.

Bizarre? We are just getting started. The chelicerae also house silk glands, and pseudoscorpions spin silk to encase clutches of eggs, for shelter during molting and overwintering, or even as a retreat from which they can wait in ambush for unsuspecting prey to pass within reach.

Using another animal for transportation is a behavior called phoresy, and that appears to be the chief means of dispersal for pseudoscorpions. They do not have wings, after all, and are so tiny that getting from one optimal niche to another under their own power is almost impossible. Also, they do not "balloon" as many spiders do, spinning silken threads that are caught by the wind and waft the spider to a new home.

After the crane fly died, the pseudoscorpion disembarked and I was able to get the images you see here. I discovered they are much more agile than I anticipated. This one could scuttle backwards fairly rapidly, run forward quickly, and it could easily climb the slick walls of our casserole dish "studio." Maneuvering the tiny creature with an artist's paintbrush was challenging since the animal could simply grip a single bristle and refuse to let go.

The social life and love life of pseudoscorpions is surprisingly complicated. Members of some species can live side by side without antagonizing each other, displaying unique and rhythmic movements of their bodies and/or pedipalps to communicate. Meanwhile, courtship between male and female in nearly all species is accomplished through a variety of behaviors. In all cases, the male packages his sperm in a spermatophore. In the most primitive scenario, he simply deposits on the ground or other substrate where he hopes a female encounters it. She will then pick up the spermatophore in her genital opening.

Males of other pseudoscorpion species will only deposit a spermatophore if they encounter a female. These males may then spin a simple or elaborate, three-dimensional silken bower to help funnel the female to the location of the spermatophore. This greatly improves the male's chances of reproductive success.

Mating can be more intimate in the most "advanced" species. This involves what is best described as dancing, the male grasping the female's pedipalps in his, and gently but firmly guiding her over the spermatophore he has just deposited. There may be subtle choreography and pre-programmed body movements involved in that. They may even kiss, if you will, interlocking their chelicerae.

Pseudoscorpion from leaf litter in Massachusetts

Despite the extent of our collective knowledge of pseudoscorpions, new species are discovered with a surprising degree of regularity. Those who study caves and other specialized habitats; and those who study rodents and other vertebrates, would be wise to keep their eyes out for pseudoscorpions. Meanwhile, carefully inspect the insects at your porch light and you might eventually find one of these arachnids on an insect attracted by your beacon.

Sources: Johnson, Elizabeth A., and Kefyn M. Catley. 2002. Life in the Leaf Litter. New York: American Museum of Natural History. 28 pp.
Weygoldt, Peter. 1969. The Biology of Pseudoscorpions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 145 pp.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Wasp-watching

It has been difficult to build-up enthusiasm this summer because insect abundance is way down here in Colorado Springs, but when I get to witness an event like I did yesterday, it makes me glad I went out and made an effort.

Female Ammophila sp. with heavy load

I happened to glimpse a very odd, fairly large insect out of the corner of my eye. It took me a minute to realize it was not a single insect, but two: a female Ammophila sp. thread-waisted wasp toting a caterpillar she had paralyzed. She was trying to locate the concealed nest burrow she had excavated before going hunting, and was wandering around rather aimlessly, but at high speed.

At one point she cached the caterpillar so she could orient herself without such a burden. It worked. She found her burrow, then went back and got the caterpillar. I was lucky to get any images of the transport because she moved so speedily and kept going in and out of focus. Even an attempt at video may have been almost useless. Her agility, with such a heavy load, was impressive. It would be like you or me running at full speed carrying a sofa between our legs.

Removing the "door" to her burrow

She abruptly dropped the caterpillar, and in a matter of seconds uncorked the stone plugging her nest burrow. She quickly entered her burrow, turned around inside, and re-emerged to grab the caterpillar and pull it in. She has to be this fast to avoid tiny parasites known as "satellite flies" that will lay tiny maggots on the caterpillar before the wasp can get it secured underground. Indeed, there was at least one miltogrammine fly flitting at the entrance to the burrow.

Pulling the caterpillar into her burrow

About a minute or so passed with both the wasp and her caterpillar underground. Finally, she emerged topside and quickly retrieved the stone that had plugged the burrow opening previously. She replaced the stone and began kicking sand on top of it. Notice how she curls her front "feet" to maximize the tarsal rake of spines that aid her in digging and filling. At one point she was startled by a curious ant and took to the air for a spit second. Ants can raid wasp burrows and cart off the caterpillar and wasp egg as food for their own young back at the colony.

Replacing the "door" to her burrow

By now I was getting a bit stiff from having stood in the same place for a long while. When I left the wasp, she was apparently unsatisfied with the nest closure and was actively chewing down to the rock plug. I left her in peace to finish what she had started.

Kicking sand to conceal the entrance

The whole sequence of events involved in the provisioning of a nest by a solitary wasp is truly remarkable. She has to dig her burrow and, load after load, flies off with armfuls of soil to fling across the landscape, lest some predator or parasite recognize her nest from piles of "tumulous" around the opening. Next, she fills in the burrow entrance, obliterating all evidence of any cavity whatsoever. She may make a brief orientation flight and then go off to hunt. How does she ever find the burrow again? We cannot even remember where we parked our car, or left our cell phone, and we reportedly have much larger brains than wasps do.

Startled by an ant

Once she has completed her mission of providing one paralyzed caterpillar for a single offspring, she goes off to start the process all over again, somewhere else. Does the wasp immediately forget about the burrow she just completed? How does that instinct work? It has to be plastic enough to address unique situations and overcome obstacles.

Up and away for good?

Over the coming months, in that underground cell, a wasp larva will hatch from the egg and begin consuming its still-living but inactive larder. Scientists believe that insects have no pain receptors, so that must be a blessing to the caterpillar. Were it deceased, though, the caterpillar would quickly rot under the assault of bacteria and fungi. After consuming the caterpillar, the wasp larva enters the pupa stage, as equally inert as the caterpillar on the outside, but inside the pupa there is a massive reorganization of cells converting the grub-like larva in to a sleek, winged adult wasp. Some genes are turned on, others are turned off. It is amazing to contemplate that a wasp larva, or caterpillar, has inside it the latent ability to execute all the behaviors of the adult. It somehow "knows" it cannot fly, does not need flower nectar, and cannot reproduce as a larva. It understands at some fundamental level that its only job is to eat and grow.

Some finishing touches

The next time you are out hiking, and a wasp flies up from under your feet, stop for a second. Back up a little. Does the wasp return to the vicinity? If so, keep watching. She is probably in the process of working on a nest burrow and will resume her activities if you stand still. It takes a little practice just to think about this possibility, but the rewards can be astonishing.

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
Weather

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.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Momentary Hiatus

Circumstances have conspired lately in both positive and negative ways to derail my intended schedule of posts here. No excuses, just realities that are in some ways beyond my control.

My father passed away on Tuesday, May 15, and I have been dealing with normal legal and logistical challenges since then. It may be awhile before that abates entirely. The emotional issues are there as well, and if you are so inclined you can read about them in this post on my Sense of Misplaced blog. I appreciate your understanding and respect.

I also continue to devote more attention to Sense of Misplaced because I firmly believe the "bigger picture" impacts every aspect of my life, your life, and our society in general. We have to start thinking way outside the box and I believe my true calling is to help achieve that. Consequently, more content is being provided there at this time.

Lastly, I am writing once again for my major client, for their Insectlopedia blog. The demand for content there is seasonal, so I have to write when the client requests it. My goal remains to write mostly during the winter so that I can be afield at this time of year, but we do not always get our way in the working world.

I may have more exciting news to share in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. Thank you as always for your continued loyalty.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Any Questions?

After my presentation to the Austin Butterfly Forum last month, I opened the floor to questions from the membership. Three questions stood out, and I would like to share them here, along with perhaps more refined answers than I gave at the time. Meanwhile, I am always happy to entertain questions from my readers. Ask away!

© Mike Quinn

Q: You mentioned finding all these species new to your area. How do you figure that out, and how do you decide whether to make that public?
Answer: I do not always know whether I have something significant or worthy of reporting, but I like to err on the side of a possible new discovery. Making an observation public helps in the verification process because more eyes, and often better-informed individuals, are looking at it. If someone shames you for posting a "common" species that you identified as something more rare, then that is on them, not you. If you are not posting [to iNaturalist or Bugguide.net for example], then you are not contributing to our collective knowledge. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you are not, then you are not learning, as well as not contributing. There is always a risk of looking stupid, but it is never wrong to put something out there (I then shared my own misidentification of a Mexican Silverspot butterfly that turned out to be much more exciting and significant than posting what I thought at the time was "merely" a Gulf Fritillary). While I normally have a better-than-average idea of what is supposed to occur where, I am as vulnerable as the next person to making mistakes or incorrect assumptions. It bruises your ego for a bit, but everyone is more informed in the long run.

Alpine butterflies are feeling the heat of global warming

Q: Have you noticed a decline in insect populations, and if so what do you attribute that to? Do you think global warming is having an impact?
Answer: Where I live we see great fluctuations in insect abundance and diversity from one year to the next, usually related to the amount of precipitation we receive, or lack thereof. The extreme swings of the weather pendulum seem to be something rather new, and would tend to lend credence to the idea that climate change is a real phenomenon. We are seeing more southerly species appearing in Colorado that we have not seen previously, or not as frequently. There have been scientific studies that show pretty conclusively that alpine species are dwindling in numbers as their high elevation habitat becomes too hot and inhospitable. I think there is no question that global warming is having an impact. Those whose occupations are in the fossil fuel industry may have another opinion.

Who you discover things with is at least as important as what you discover
© Mike Quinn

Q: What would you say is the most exciting place you have ever lived, or traveled to, for insects?
Answer: That is a something of an unfair question [I was addressing folks in Austin, Texas and thought maybe that location was the answer he was looking for], but....I'm not sure that I can point to a particular geographic place. I think for me it is a matter of specific experiences, isolated encounters with animals that leave the most vivid impressions and that I can recall most intensely. It is not always an insect that figures into the picture, either. A couple days ago when we were at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory and we came across a coral snake, very suddenly, right in the middle of the road. Before we traveled here I had contemplated what kinds of potentially dangerous creatures we might stumble upon, and a coral snake was not even on my radar. I don't see snakes very often, anywhere, let alone one so colorful and venomous. That got my adrenaline pumping, and I will not soon forget the experience. The short answer is that I can find wonderful creatures anywhere, from my backyard to a southern swamp. Yes, some places may be more exotic than others, but they are all what you make of them.

Please feel free to share your own questions in comments and I will periodically make a blog post to answer them.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Fun With Austin Butterfly Forum

It was my honor to be invited to give a presentation and participate in "bug walks" with the Austin Butterfly Forum in Texas from April 22-24. Special thanks to Mike Quinn for extending the invitation, and to Dan and Linda Hardy for hosting Heidi and myself at their lovely home. We were fortunate to have agreeable weather there, though we left Colorado Springs with snow on the ground and returned to more flurries.

Austin Butterfly Forum members by a pond at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The turnout for all of the scheduled events was impressive considering that we were looking for insects rather than birds. The Sunday outing included people who drove from as far as Houston to spend about half a day with us. The Monday evening meeting, held at the Zilker Botanical Garden, was likewise well attended, and select ABF members furnished refreshments. You do not go hungry or without entertainment in Austin, at least if the ABF has anything to say about it. Let us start from the beginning, though.

Duskywing skipper caterpillar in leaf "sandwich"

Heidi and I arrived early afternoon on April 21, and Mike Quinn whisked us off for some vittles at Threadgill's, an Austin landmark packed with music memorabilia of rock and country genres. The weather was humid with intermittent drizzle, but we went to visit the Zilker Botanical Garden anyway. This lush park is full of all manner of native and exotic plants, landscaped in a manner that was bird- and bug-friendly. We found several caterpillars, true bugs, beetles, and butterflies despite the overcast skies.

She's in there....tarantula burrow

We then went next door to the Austin Nature and Science Center and the Zilker Nature Preserve behind it. We quickly spotted a Diamondback Watersnake digesting a recent meal on an island in a small pond. One of the naturalists who was leaving for the day described a vireo nest in the preserve, and sure enough we were able to locate that, too, but not before finding a tarantula in her silk-lined lair. The vireo nest looked like it was holding a recently-hatched Brown-headed Cowbird, much to our disappointment.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron along Colorado River

By now we were killing time until the famous bat flight from beneath the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin. Walking along the river we found a few more birds, including a Yellow-crowned Night-heron stalking the shady shore. After a quick bite at Freebirds World Burrito, we were ready to witness the spectacle of over 500,000 Brazilian Free-tailed Bats exiting their haunts from beneath the bridge. We were not disappointed.

Bats exiting from under the bridge. © Mike Quinn

About twenty minutes after sunset, they started streaming from the southern end of the bridge, followed eventually by others farther north. Please go see it for yourself, from both the bridge and from a boat or kayak. There are even commercial boat cruises specifically for this purpose.

Something has our attention at Brackenridge Field Laboratory
© Mike Quinn

Sunday morning we convened with other members of Austin Butterfly Forum at Brackenridge Field Laboratory. Several buildings, greenhouses, and uncovered water tanks occupy the property, but there are also acres of undeveloped property that we prowled for insects. The most startling and exciting organism we encountered was a coral snake, right on a paved path.

Coral snake at Brackenridge Field Lab

After a pizza lunch delivery, we toured the insect collection, a sizeable holding of preserved specimens. They had just received a donation of butterfly and moth specimens that have yet to be integrated into the larger collection. Lastly, we looked in on a greenhouse containing live tropical longwing butterflies (Heliconius and related genera). It was much like the commercial butterfly houses one pays to visit, but with a scientific purpose to analyze genetic lineages in these insects. Some specimens were easily recognizable as a particular species, but others were obvious hybrids.

Captive Heliconius sp. at Brackenridge Field Lab

After lunch, Heidi and I retired to our host's home, where I explored a greenbelt ravine behind their property. The "hill country" is crossed by streams that erode the limestone rock that gives the landscape its topography. Live oak is the dominant tree, but there is a good diversity of vegetation. It is a distinctly arid habitat, but southerly enough in latitude to get animals like anole lizards and, unfortunately, fire ants.

Anole lizard

Monday morning found us strolling along the Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail, west from the Barton Springs Municipal Pool, a popular swimming hole. There were plenty of butterflies and other insects to be seen, including the ever-present Southern Dogface, Pipevine Swallowtail, and Gulf Fritillary. We did manage a splendid White-striped Longtail skipper, which was only the second specimen I'd ever seen.

White-striped Longtail skipper at Barton Creek

We were eventually able to access the nearly dry creekbed, where Heidi spied a local rarity: a Filigree Skimmer dragonfly.

Filigree Skimmer along Barton Creek

There were a handful of other dragonflies, and many damselflies, too. Heidi also pointed out a couple of Six-spotted Fishing Spiders waiting in ambush at the edge of one of the puddles now making up Barton Creek.

Six-spotted Fishing Spider on Barton Creek

The riparian trees are full of birds, and we got to see a White-eyed Vireo collecting spider silk to line its nest. Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, and Great-tailed Grackles were among the most obvious birds here and within Austin as a whole, at least during our brief visit.

White-eyed Vireo along Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail

Between lunch and dinner I did a bit of exploring in Dan and Linda Hardy's backyard, which is mostly wild, native vegetation and the occasional deliberately installed plant, like "Antelope Horns," a type of milkweed. As luck would have it, it was in partial bloom, and crowded with three Gray Hairstreak butterflies and one gorgeous green Juniper Hairstreak.

Juniper Hairstreak with Gray Hairstreak behind it

A Springtime Darner dragonfly eluded my attempts to get its picture, and the large, red paper wasps were almost equally good at hiding as they hunted for other insects. I was, however, able to repay our host's hospitality, at least in part, by recording the first Banded Hairstreak butterfly in his yard. I hope he has since been able to find one for himself.

Banded Hairstreak

My after dinner presentation "Beyond Birds: the Joys of Bugwatching" was apparently well received, and afterwards I signed copies of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America for several appreciative folks.

Wait, there's more....

Enjoying Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
© Mike Quinn

Tuesday morning found us at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, an epic tribute to Texas flora on 284 acres. There is an ongoing invertebrate survey that has, to date, recorded 93 species of butterflies alone at the site. All wildlife is welcome, and our particular visit coincided with the presence of fledgling Great Horned Owls right at the entrance to the whole park.

Great Horned Owl chick at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

After lunch, before our departing flight, Mike took us to Hornsby Bend, a wastewater treatment and research facility that includes large retention ponds frequented by birds and other wildlife. We saw many shorebirds there, as well as Painted Bunting and, finally, a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers as we were exiting. It was a fine conclusion to an exciting, memory-filled trip. Thanks again to everyone who made it possible.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Hornsby Bend