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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Take a "Sidewalk Safari"

The Rock Island Trail, Colorado Springs, CO

Back in 1962, the Beach Boys took us on a "Surfin' Safari." I want to take you on a "sidewalk safari." Spring is the ideal time to do just that: look for insects and spiders and related creatures on sidewalks and bike paths and other such pedestrian-speed rights of way.

Woodlice are common on sidewalks

At this time of year, temperatures are still relatively cool, especially in the morning hours, so cold-blooded creatures are looking for places they can bask to rev up their internal engines. A concrete or asphalt surface also heats up faster than the soil, so simply laying out on such a substrate is going to warm you up a lot faster, too.

A "billbug," a type of weevil

You might think that your particular neighborhood would be a poor place to do this exercise, but I cannot tell you how many times I have found surprising specimens in even the most urban situations. When I lived and worked in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1990s, I would routinely find underwing moths, sphinx moths, grasshoppers, even dragonflies on the sidewalk or on the exterior walls of buildings. I even found a Red Bat once. A Silver-haired Bat another time, and Big Brown Bats several times.

Ooooh, some other kind of weevil

The more suburban or rural, the more likely you are to encounter wildlife, of course, but it can be well worth it to traverse any avenue. Bike trails are perhaps best because you can go for miles and miles, and because they are often routed through forests or along the banks of rivers or streams. The wilder the habitat the better.

A basking female Green-striped Grasshopper soakin' up some rays

One of the unfortunate aspects of a sidewalk safari is that you inevitably come across dead creatures that have been stepped on, sometimes deliberately, or run over by bicyclists. The carnage that results from our high-impact locomotion is probably grossly underestimated, but it rarely seems to diminish insect abundance. Diversity may suffer a little more, though. It would be interesting to line a bike path or sidewalk with pitfall traps and see what drops in. It might make a great study for a graduate student (hint, hint).

A running crab spider, Thanatus sp.

Take along your magnifying glass. Substitute binoculars if you fancy birds or mammals more than you do six- and eight-legged organisms. Bring your camera or just use your phone. Wildflowers, also known as weeds in some regions, often line hard surface trails or sprout from the cracks between slabs of cement, or from seams in the asphalt.

Lots of true bugs out now, like this Small Milkweed Bug

Did I mention that walking is great exercise, too? It is a wonderful distraction from your worries and cares, a great way to commute if you live close enough to your workplace; and what better way to spend your lunch hour? Looking for wild things is also a great conversation-starter, with the police. I'm joking! Hopefully, anyway. Inquiring minds want to know what you are doing, mostly out of curiosity rather than suspicion. Now go, get out from behind your computer monitor already. I promise you will find something cool.

Hey, wait, you dropped something! Oops, too late....

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders

One resource that has been missing from the recent explosion of spider-related material coming from various publishers has been a book aimed squarely at the average homeowner or gardener with something other than an all-consuming passion for arachnids. "Dr. Eleanor" to the rescue with Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2018. 96 pp.).

Eleanor Spicer Rice, who already has several related titles under her belt, mostly about ants, has teamed up with Chris Buddle to deliver a nicely organized, thoroughly researched book on the spider species that the public most often asks about. You know, the eight-legged critter crawling across the kitchen floor, the infamous "shower spider," and the ones you always see in the (insert shed, basement, garage, or other appropriate venue).

The authors treat their subjects with accuracy, clarity, and brevity, while still managing to cultivate the same sense of fascination in the reader that they, as scientists and writers, have already found for themselves. This is no small feat. There is a dash of humor here and there as well, and they are not above poking fun at themselves. Color photographs, mostly by Sean McCann, complement the lively text and enhance the impact of the book. Whether arachnophobes will reach for it on the bookstore shelf, or over the online vendors remains to be seen. I hope they do.

Even if the book were a complete failure otherwise, it would bear recommending for this passage alone:

"Striped lynx spiders prefer biding their time in agricultural fields. When we plant our crops with only one or two types of plant per field, we humans essentially sow arthropod grocery superstores. In nature, any given species of plant is often mixed in with other plant species and so bugs that like a particular plant species may need to search to find the plansts they like. As a result, only a limited number of bugs can live in an area. It's like living in a town with a gas station-sized grocery store. In our human-planted superstores, however, tons of insects that like our crops can move into the giant all-you-can-eat buffet of a farm, filled with only their favorite foods. These insects become agricultural pests, gobbling up billions of dollars' worth of food we grow for ourselves each year."

Exactly. I have said the same thing myself in my own publications, about how humans are responsible for creating their own insect pests. Further, all the crop plants are equally vulnerable because they have identical genetics. Not so in nature. Watch a butterfly laying eggs. She won't oviposit on every plant; only on those a little weaker in their chemical defenses.

My only quibbles with the book stem mostly from the fact that I am a writer, too. There were a couple of bad word choices, but I see worse errors in other books. There was one implied assertion that is incorrect, however. In the Frequently Asked Questions part of the back matter, one FAQ concerns whether all spiders are venomous. The authors indicate they are. This is not true. Spiders in the family Uloboridae, common in North America, lack venom glands. Lastly, there are some common English names for certain spider species or genera that were apparently created just for this book. There is no such thing as a "Ceiling Spider," even though I would endorse that name for Cheiracanthium species because that is exactly where you encounter them.

Enough nit-picking. The "up sides" of this handy volume are much more numerous. It is a paperback, and of a size that is large enough to not lose easily in a stack of other books, and comfortable to handle for those of us who are all thumbs. Again, the text is a joy to read. Spicer and Buddle manage to give each spider a personality that reflects its biology. This style comes close to anthropomorphism, but I am all in favor of whatever it takes to win more arachnophiles. Spiders need all the friends they can get in Humanland.

One of my measures of the goodness of a book like this is whether it teaches me, a longtime naturalist, something new. This book did that, in spades. I love being surprised with new knowledge, and with that I heartily recommend Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Mark Your Calendar....

Time for updates on upcoming events, point out a new feature to this blog, and solicit additional sponsors. It may not feel like spring everywhere, but don't let it sneak up on you and catch you unprepared. Here are some things to look forward to, in Colorado and elsewhere.

Tiger Beetle Hunt, Lake Pueblo State Park, April 14
April, 2018
  • April 14 (Saturday), 9:45 AM - 3 PM (maximum): Second Annual Tiger Beetle Hunt at Lake Pueblo State Park, Colorado, USA, by the Mile High Bug Club. We can expect to see at least five species of colorful Cicindela tiger beetles.
  • April 18 (Wednesday), 6:30-8:30 PM: "The Magic of Moths,", presented by yours truly at Bear Creek Nature Center for the Aiken Audubon Society, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.
  • April 21 (Saturday), 9 AM - 3 PM: Mile High Bug Club at Garden of the Gods Park for Earth Day, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.
  • April 22-24 (Sunday through Tuesday), various times: daytime insect walks and evening presentation by "Bug Eric" for the Austin Butterfly Forum, Austin, Texas, USA.

"The Magic of Moths," Bear Creek Nature Center, April 18
May, 2018
  • May 12 (Saturday), 9 AM - Noon: "Tarantulas of Colorado" with the Mile High Bug Club for the Pikes Peak Birding & Nature Festival at Bear Creek Nature Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. Register now for field trips and other activities!
  • May 14 (Monday), 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM: Mile High Bug Club membership meeting at the Gold Hill Division Police Station, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. Come learn more about our education and conservation organization and what we have planned.
  • May 19 (Saturday), 11 AM - 3 PM: "Tarantulas of Colorado" with the Mile High Bug Club at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, Colorado, USA. We will have live examples of the three tarantula species found in Colorado, plus much more.

That's all for events as of now, but watch this blog for additions as the weather warms.

© Megan Miller
Tarantulas of Colorado, Bear Creek Nature Center, May 19

New! "How to Make an Insect Collection"

You may have noticed the new tab at the top of this page. Click on it and you will be taken to a comprehensive and highly organized text and graphic document on how to make an insect collection. This may prove useful to teachers, students, naturalists, and citizen scientists wishing to collect insects in a fashion that will enhance their historical and scientific value as preserved specimens. I recognize collecting is not for everyone. I know some people who only collect specimens they find already dead. Whatever your personal inclination, please understand that without specimen collections, our collective scientific understanding of the world would be non-existent. Thank you.

Sponsors and Advertisers Welcome

As always, I welcome sponsors and advertisers to support this blog. BioQuip and Tender Corporation are currently my only sponsors. I did apply recently for a grant, but am not assuming anything about the outcome. Long-term loyalty is what I am most looking for. Please contact me if your institution or business is compatible with the educational goals of this blog, and you would like advertising space.

Thank you, Donors!

I would like to publicly thank the many individuals who have contributed financially or in-kind to the endurance of this online publication. Your support is immeasurable and invaluable. I am considering adding another tab (page) to recognize donors by name. Please let me know if you think this is a good idea, an invasion of privacy, or whatever. I will not exercise this option without consent and consensus. Please comment below if you would be so kind. Thank you, and happy spring!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Odd Little Weevils

Over the eons....ok, decades, but it seems like eons, I have honed my search image for cryptic insects that other people overlook. Last week I was rewarded for discerning a pebble-mimicking insect from debris on the sidewalk. I will not disclose the number of times I have scrutinized some little object that turned out to be an actual pebble, bird poop, or other inanimate thing. This particular creature turned out to be a common but seldom-seen "bison dung weevil," genus Thecesternus.

These beetles, also known as "bison snout beetles," get their name from having first been discovered as habitually seeking shelter under chunks of bison dung on the North American plains. The weevils are nocturnal, flightless, and need protection from the searing heat of the day. Back in the day, "buffalo chips" were the most plentiful answer to that problem.

There are seven species of Thecesternus collectively found in the central, eastern, and southwest U.S. north to Alberta in Canada. They are only about six millimeters in body length, have a very truncated "nose," and are expert in feigning death by drawing in their face, antennae, and, to some degree, legs when frightened by a potential predator. It was difficult to get images of this particular specimen with its antennae extended, so sensitive was it to motion, vibration, and apparently even the camera flash. This represents only the third specimen I have found in Colorado, and one of the other two was dead when I discovered it.

What little we know about these beetles is thanks to the evaluation of one species, T. hirsutus, as a potential biological control in Australia for Parthenium hysterophorus, variously known as Santa Maria, Santa Maria Feverfew, Whitetop Weed, Famine Weed, and Bhajpa Weed, among other aliases. Native to the New World tropics, this plant is known for causing respiratory allergies, contact dermatitis, and genetic mutations in both people and livestock. It is not without redeeming attributes, too, but it has no place in regions where it did not originate. Consequently, several insects have been employed to control it.

Thecesternus hirsutus spends the winter in the larval stage, underground. Larvae hatch from eggs laid in the soil by the adult female weevils in the fall, when autumn rains trigger growth in plant life. The C-shaped grubs then burrow deeper and begin feeding externally on the roots of the host plant. Their activity stimulates the formation of a gall that eventually reaches about ten millimeters in diameter. Each larva encloses itself in an earthen chamber around its feeding site for protection from soil-dwelling predators. The cell is initially rather fragile, but is reinforced internally by anal secretions the larva applies to the interior walls with its mouth. The resulting "room" is quite durable.

The larvae feed into the winter months, reaching maturity between December and February (remember we are talking northern Mexico). The larvae remain dormant until early April when they molt into the pupa stage. Adult beetles emerge in April or May. The beetles feed above ground over the summer before starting the cycle anew.

In the laboratory rearing of T. hirsutus, a few young larvae were found in spring, indicating that some adult females may oviposit (lay eggs) at that time, resulting in a partial second generation of grubs during the summer months when it is usually adults that are present. Both of the living adult specimens I have encountered were found in April here in El Paso County, Colorado.

T. hirsutus turned out to be a poor candidate for control of Parthenium hysterophorus, but the rearing of the weevils demonstrated how well adapted they are to unpredictable weather patterns and volatile changes in climate. This may be a genus of beetles worth examining more in-depth as models of flexibility in the face of global warming and its attendant yearly extremes of heat, drought, and deluge.

The first specimen I discovered in Black Forest, Colorado

Sources: Arnett, Ross H., Jr., Michael C. Thomas, Paul E. Skelley, and J. Howard Frank, eds. 2002. American Beetles (vol. 2). Boca Raton: CRC Press. 861 pp.
Jacques, H.E. 1951. How to Know the Beetles. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 372 pp.
McClay, A.S. and D.M. Anderson. 1985. "Biology and Immature Stages of Thecesternus hirsutus Pierce (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) in North-eastern Mexico," Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 87: 207-215.
Patel, Seema. 2011. "Harmful and beneficial aspects of Parthenium hysterophorus: an update," 3 Biotech 1(1): 1-9.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Pinyon Problems? Maybe, Maybe Not

I always seem to be caught off guard by the first insects to emerge in spring, and this year was no exception. The chance finding of a male scale insect prompted me to investigate an ornamental Pinyon Pine in our Colorado Springs townhouse complex, and that revealed yet another insect, or at least signs of one.

Walking in our neighborhood as I do most days, weather permitting, I happened upon what I figured must be a tiny midge or winged aphid, about one millimeter in length, on a wooden fence. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be a male scale insect of some sort. Scale insects generally give the impression of anything but an insect, a small, unmoving, button-like bump on a twig or branch. Mature male scale insects on the other hand often have wings and fly to find females. I was not aware they can appear so early in the season.

Male Pinyon Needle Scale

Back home, I took images of the specimen and tried to match it with something online. Male scale insects are so rarely noticed, let alone imaged, that I was not optimistic. Surprisingly, I found a close match in the genus Matsucoccus, family Matsucoccidae. This is a relatively new family, separated from its previous placement as part of the Margarodidae or "ground pearls." The tiny black and yellowish bug, with white waxy streamers emanating from its posterior, most resembled the Pinyon Needle Scale, Matsucoccus acalyptus, but I was hesitant to jump to conclusions. Our neighborhood is more in the high plains than a forest, though we do have many ornamental conifers.

Sure enough, I noticed a Pinyon Pine between two buildings in our townhouse complex. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I checked for sessile female scales, and managed to find a few. They are barely over one millimeter themselves. It turns out that the life cycle of this species is rather complex, with a lot going on at this time of year.

Adult female Pinyon Needle Scales

Mature females back out of the waxy covering that forms the "bean stage," and render themselves sexually receptive. As near as I can tell, the adult females have this mosaic pattern to them, whereas the "bean" stage does not. Once mated, the female crawls to an appropriate place to lay her oval cluster of yellowish eggs, encased in loose, white, silky webbing. Favored sites for egg laying include the root collar of the tree, in the crotches of large branches, the underside of large branches, or in deep fissures in the bark of the trunk.

"Crawlers" emerge from the eggs roughly five weeks after they are laid. This tiny, orange, first instar immature stage migrates up the tree to begin feeding on needles that grew the previous year. The insects use their piercing-sucking mouthparts to tap fluids inside the foliage. As they feed they begin secreting the wax coating that covers them. That coat turns black shortly after it is produced. The nymphs also molt into their second instar. This is the "bean" stage in which the immobile females pass the winter.

"Bean stage" of Pinyon Needle Scale

Second instar males crawl to the ground in October or November. There they go into a prepupal stage, wrapping themselves in white silken webbing beforehand. Three or four days later the males molt again into the pupa stage, spending the winter there. The female nymphs resume feeding the following spring, molt into adults, mate, and start the cycle anew.

The Pinyon Needle Scale is a native insect, but heavy infestations can severely weaken trees, making them vulnerable to subsequent attack by Pinyon Pine Beetles, Ips confusus, in natural ecosystems. Landscape trees are even more at risk because they are not always planted at appropriate elevations, in proper soils, with proper sun exposure. They are often planted in isolation, too.

Galls of Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge

While looking for the scales, I could not help but notice that many of the needles on the tree on our property were greatly swollen and yellowing. This is the work of an entirely different insect, the Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge, Pinyonia edulicola. It is a tiny fly in the gall midge family Cecidomyiidae. Its life cycle begins when a female lays several eggs in a developing needle in mid-summer. The larvae that hatch crawl to the base of the needle and their feeding activity stimulates the plant to grow needle tissue around them. From five to forty larvae occupy the resulting gall, continuing to feed and grow within it. They pupate in late spring of the following year. The adult flies emerge in mid-June to mid-July.

More Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge galls

Our Pinyon Pine tree seems to be doing ok despite the onslaught, and we tend to underestimate the resilience of plants in the face of insect attack. Our current drought is no doubt undermining the tree's natural defenses, but the insects feeding on it are also not immune to their own predators, parasites, and other enemies. It may be a good idea to keep tabs on the trees in your own yard, but resist the temptation to intervene at the first sight of some insect. Do your homework, ask for expert assistance, and then decide what, if anything, to do.

Sources: Cranshaw, Whitney. 2004. Garden Insects of North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 656 pp.
Furniss, R.L. and V.M. Carolin. 1977. Western Forest Insects. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication No. 1339. 654 pp.
Phillips, Gene. 2018. "Pinyon Needle Scales, Matsucoccus acalyptus," Nevada Division of Forestry

Friday, March 16, 2018

Pollinator Drones Can Buzz Off

It has just been revealed to the media that Walmart filed an application on March 8 for a patent on miniature drones designed to pollinate crops grown by the retail giant for sale in its grocery stores. The company cited evidence of declines in bee populations and the need to supplement the pollination services provided by insects. It is the opinion of this writer and entomologist that this high tech response to a very serious organic and complex ecosystem problem is inappropriate, and troubling in many ways.

© Dave Simonds and Economist.com
Drones are not alive

The idea of using tiny drones to accomplish the pollination of flowers, at least in agricultural systems, is nothing new. The Japanese built drones specifically for the cross-pollination of lilies. The videos of the machines in action only served to expose how clumsy and blundering they are compared to the direct and delicate maneuvers of bees. It seemed miraculous that the flower parts were not seriously damaged by the bulky and bouncy, propeller-driven craft.

Why are we so eager to replace complex living organisms with feeble facsimiles manufactured in robotics labs? Have we decided that it is acceptable to consider this as a viable “solution” to a much larger problem? I do not recall casting a vote for this myself. How long will we tolerate businesses and corporations to dictate the level of biodiversity we can do without? This is why science is getting an increasingly bad rap. Scientists are fast becoming beholden to investors, shareholders, and other private interests, and less accountable to the public. Independent, transparent, and government-sponsored research may soon be a thing of the past, if it is not so already.

The implied definition of “bee” in this particular instance is the Western Honey Bee, Apis mellifera. If that is not the case, then Walmart needs to speak up; but in the course of clarification, Walmart may expose a willingness to consider all solitary and native bee species as expendable, as long as we are able to pollinate the crops that feed us. Wildflowers and trees and shrubs are a non-issue in this scenario. They are not viewed as anything necessary to human civilization or financial prosperity. Emphasis on prosperity, as the business world tends to equate civilization with exponential fiscal growth.

Drones are not cute and fuzzy

Might it be cheaper to employ drones instead of honey bees? Maybe. Apiculture is itself an industry, with attendant expenses that are passed on to the customer. Many large-scale beekeeping enterprises involve the transcontinental movement of hives to fields and orchards where they are needed to effect pollination of almonds and other crops. This is not a cheap endeavor, and for all I know, some accountant has crunched the numbers for Walmart and declared that bees are inferior to drones from a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Replacing bees with machines cheapens our humanity in many other ways, though. There is no substitute for interactions with other living organisms, though we seem hell-bent on trying to make it so. We erect all manner of filters between ourselves and other humans, even. I am beginning to feel the need to apologize that you are reading this message from a static screen instead of hearing it from my lips, in person, with all the nuances of annunciation and emphasis, all the facial expressions that amplify my concern.

Drones are not specialized like this squash bee to pollinate specific kinds of flowers

Sam Walton’s heirs may literally prosper with every effort to simplify their business, and the lives of their customers, but I prosper most in the chaos that is wild nature. My psyche requires that if I am to be civil to my fellow man. A vast field of corn, uninterrupted by hedgerows, windbreaks of trees, or other hints of what used to be there, is a vast wasteland to my mind and soul. Indeed, farming practices that enhance biodiversity can be cost-saving, too. The more wild, unmanaged pollinators, the more predatory and parasitic insects, the more birds, the more wildflowers (you may call them “weeds”), the less need for fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemical dependencies. The better state of mind of the farmer, too, the more adventures their children can have exploring the acres.

I could drone on, but you get the point. We can continue to impoverish our lives by distancing ourselves from nature, or we can choose to embrace it, despite its unpredictability. The future is in the latter approach. The former has no future.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This Girl!

One sure-fire way to make me smile is by introducing me to any young person who is passionate about something. It matters little to me exactly what the subject of their fascination is, but that they are enthusiastic and eager to share what they know. Young people energize elders who have expertise but have become lethargic and cynical of the future in their fields of authority. Meanwhile, children learn even more from those willing to mentor them.

Earlier this month I had the occasion to meet Miss Abigail Nilson-Bartlett, brought to a membership meeting of the Mile High Bug Club by her dad, Ryan, on February 12. They travelled to and from a Denver suburb to our Colorado Springs meeting location. I am not sure who was happier they did: Me or them.

Abigail, at seven years old, firmly asserts that "I am an arachnologist," and I believe her. She can pronounce the word, and then back it up with information that is not widespread knowledge for anyone outside of arachnology. She keeps a couple of pet tarantulas at home, caring for them judiciously such that they are comfortable and healthy, and handled only occasionally. In fact, she wants people to know that "I have a caring for bugs. When they are hurt I care of them well until they are healed. I am a bug doctor and try to help when I can." Her favorite non-spider arthropod is the "rainbow stag beetle."

She considers her greatest accomplishment so far to be assisting her father in a search for wild tarantulas in southeast Colorado. She met Dr. Paula Cushing, one of the premier professional arachnologists in the world, when she accompanied Ryan to volunteer at the twentieth International Congress of Arachnology that was held in Golden, Colorado in 2016. Dr. Cushing is a tough act to follow, but at least I could provide Abigail with a signed copy of my field guide.

During the course of our Mile High Bug Club meeting I made a presentation entitled "Wasp/Not Wasp," an interactive PowerPoint in which the audience is invited to determine which of two images depicts a wasp. Most slides were of a wasp and a complimentary "mimic" like a fly or a moth, but some displayed two wasps, or two mimics. Abigail participated with great enthusiasm, and was often correct in her answers. After listening to me explain the "nth" example of some wasp or mimic that preys on spiders, she asked why it is that there are so many insects that kill her beloved spiders. I can totally empathize. I often ask that about crocodiles and mantids that are shown over-and-over in the media eating some animal I like a lot more. Anyway, I did my best to explain that every species has its role in the biosphere and we have to respect that even if we don't like it. "Like ecology?" she asked. All of us older people were dumbstruck because we were at least teenagers before we learned that word. "Yes," I replied after regaining my faculties, "that's the framework that everything fits in. Yes."

L-R: Amelia, Ryan, Abigail

Abigail's slightly older sister Amelia is an accomplished gymnast, but is also interested in natural history. Trips to far-flung gymnastic meets allow the whole family to explore new cities and have travel adventures along the way. They recently returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, in fact.

It has been awhile since I have either made myself available to mentor students and children, or been afforded the opportunity, and I am grateful to the MHBC for providing a way to do that. We have other young people participating in club events, and I hope that continues to expand. I urge my readers to seek out organizations, events, and other avenues through which they can be mentors as well, whether in entomology or any other career or recreational pursuit. We need to repair trust to where it was when we were growing up. We are the village now, but we have to prove ourselves as responsible adults who truly have the interests of children and their families at heart.

Thank you, Abigail, for helping restore my faith in our next generation of human beings, regardless of whatever they become professionally when they "grow up." You already have a mature sense of self-confidence, and social skills I wish I had myself at your age.