Sunday, October 6, 2019

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Shoot it with a camera or your phone, though. Yesterday I once again found myself grateful for having paid attention to something I could have easily dismissed. Nothing bad can ever come from taking a moment to take a second look, and recording that observation whenever possible.

© Gary Larson via Pinterest

As a volunteer expert on social media, I cannot count the times someone has begun their post in an insect identification group with "I don't have an image, but...." I am tempted to start replying "Well, I don't have an answer, but...." I would never do that. I enjoy a good mystery too much, and believe in rewarding curiosity and a desire to learn.

There is still no substitute for a clear image of the creature you would like identified, and increasingly there is no excuse. Smart phones can now take professional-grade images that only dedicated cameras could manage a few minutes ago. You are forgiven if you had other priorities at the time, like eating, being engaged in an important conversation, or in a business meeting, for example.

The situation I am referring to is when you are out observing wild things anyway, and you still decide not to bother recording something. This is a failure I am occasionally guilty of, too, but I am working to rectify it. It gets worse the more you think you know, the more you think you recognize a specimen without close inspection.

A male Variegated Meadowhawk dragonfly

Yesterday I visited the Pueblo Reservoir Wildlife Area west and north of Lake Pueblo State Park in Colorado, thanks to my friend Tim Leppek who has been there many times and knows the area well. As is our custom, we made scant horizontal progress over several hours of walking along the mostly dry basin and channel. Dragonflies were still in abundance, mostly meadowhawks in the genus Sympetrum, as they persist late into autumn.

A male Striped Meadowhawk dragonfly

One dragonfly stood out, its wings shimmering more brightly than the others. I almost dismissed it as a teneral specimen, one that had just recently emerged as an adult, with mature adult pigments yet to manifest themselves. It flew relatively weakly as well, which is also typical of newly-minted adult odonates. I took a picture anyway, in the harsh afternoon sun, then reviewed the image on my camera screen and reacted "what the..??" I looked up from my camera and the crystal phantom was nowhere to be seen.

Fast forward to after I returned home, and began looking in my dragonfly books. There were no obvious photo matches in any of them. The closest approach was a female Bleached Skimmer, Libellula composita, the name alone being most appropriate considering how bright the thing was in the field. Looking online I finally managed to find a couple of images of that species, and that gender, that did match.

The female Bleached Skimmer

The Bleached Skimmer is well known from southeast Colorado, with records from Weld, Kiowa, Prowers, Bent, and Pueblo counties. The first specimen dates to July 11, 1991 in Lincoln County. The one from yesterday may represent the latest date for the species in Colorado, but I'll have to check with all the relevant authorities to know for sure.

Think about what you might be overlooking, and look again. Devote a few pixels to it. Share it. Maybe it is something common and well known in your area. There is no shame in redundancy if that is the case. Eventually, something you spot won't be common or well known, at least in your location, and your observation will be greeted with great appreciation by the scientific community.

Monday, September 30, 2019

How Humanity Manufactures Its Own Pests

There are only a handful of insects that are associated only with our species, Homo sapiens. The rest of what we call pests are products of our own personal, social, and industrial behaviors, plus media sensationalism. We have become experts at creating adversaries that do not exist naturally.

Yellowjackets are not pests, they are pest control

Human lice of three species, and the bed bug (Cimex lectularius) are the only naturally occurring pests of humanity. They are so closely adapted to our bodies and lifestyles that they cannot exist without us. We are their food and habitat rolled into one. Why, then, do we insist that other insects, and often spiders, scorpions, and other invertebrates, are also pests? At worst we could maybe call each of them a "nuisance," something that interferes periodically with the comfort and progress of our personal lives, disrupts the social order or, more importantly, causes financial hardship.

Carpet beetle larvae eat your woolens, but the adults pollinate flowers (in this case it is the invasive tamarisk tree, though)

As I wrote in the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, "'Pest" is a label we ascribe to any organism that competes for 'our' resources. It is an artificial concept. Nature recognizes no ownership...." We have only ourselves to blame for most of the creatures we call pests. The worst pests are those that have been introduced from abroad, either intentionally or accidentally, and unleashed in landscapes where they face few, if any, natural predators, parasites, diseases, and other mortality factors. Meanwhile, we grow their favorite host plants as vast monoculture crops and then wonder why they show up in droves to feast on them. Spraying pesticides to suppress one pest often leads to the explosion of another pest that had been previously outcompeted by the one you are now controlling.

The Turkestan Cockroach is one of our "newer" invasive species

Back in the city, nearly all of our domiciliary (structure-dwelling) cockroach species have their origins in tropical Africa. Is this the bad karma we are forced to endure for the slave trade of our ancestors? Since urban slums suffer the most from cockroach infestations, that is apparently not the case. Cockroaches do have another quality to their profile that is independent of race and economic status: they take full advantage of our often sloppy housekeeping habits. Well, we can't possibly take responsibility for that, so we label roaches as pests.

This is less of a conspiracy theory than it is a shrewd business model and marketing strategy.

It is important to note that while cockroaches have been implicated in the mechanical transmission of bacteria and other contaminating pathogens, they have never been proven to do so. Cockroaches, and also "filth flies" like house flies, blow flies, and flesh flies, groom themselves constantly, as they must to prevent themselves from suffering diseases, as well as keep their delicate sensory bristles, hairs, eyes, and antennae sharp enough to detect potential predators. Yes, prolonged exposure to large cockroach populations can trigger asthma, especially in children. That is a fact.

Termites break down dead wood into soil

Let us revisit our own culpability in pest creation. We insist on having cats and dogs live with us, but wage war on fleas and ticks. We build our homes out of wood but won't share them with termites. We plant our gardens and yards with exotic plants that are not acclimated to our region and are therefore more vulnerable to even native insects and fungi and viruses. We covet animals and plants from other countries, creating commercial demand for wildlife that has no place in our captivity, while unintentionally creating invasive species. Yes, I am exaggerating with the first two examples, but my goal is to have you understand how your personal choices have consequences. You can avoid most perceived pest problems by making different choices, like planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers instead of weak, exotic cultivars, for example.

It is terribly ironic that humanity is more tolerant of invasive foreign species than it is of human immigrants and refugees.

Our desire to externalize our problems, and their solutions, falls perfectly into place for those commercial industries that feed off of our laziness and failure to understand how ecosystems function, be they outdoors, or inside the home, office, or tool shed. That alone is not enough to satisfy the desire for profits, so these industries create additional villains that can only be slain through the products and services of said industries. This is less of a conspiracy theory than it is a shrewd business model and marketing strategy. It is no accident that caricatures and CGI effects are employed in advertising to convince us that a given creature is a menace. It is the equivalent of war propaganda and institutional racism.

Female Anopheles mosquito. What good are mosquitoes? Ask a Plasmodium.

One of the tragic consequences of a "pest mentality" is that it can eventually spill over into how we view members of our own species. This is dramatically evident in today's political landscape. It is terribly ironic that humanity is more tolerant of invasive foreign species than it is of human immigrants and refugees. If one defines a pest as a competitor or predator, then it is easy to paint other people that way, especially in economic terms since economies are essentially ecosystems of only one species: us.

The Gypsy Moth was introduced in hopes of starting a silk industry in North America. That worked out well....

We have allowed ourselves to be conditioned by corporations and corporate media into viewing every other organism, every other human being, as either good or evil, an asset or a liability, a boon or a bane, guilty or innocent. The physicians' pledge to "first, do no harm" should perhaps be applied to every profession, including law enforcement, but maybe to the agricultural, nursery, and landscaping industries most of all. It should well be a personal motto, too. Do your homework. Do not blindly accept the so-called truths repeated by industries that profit from ignorance, and shame you for an unkempt house or yard. Promote biodiversity, exterminate instead the predatory practices of the marketplace.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Can "Enting" Be a Thing?

The short answer is "yes." The more appropriate answer is "it has to be." There is precedence in other scientific disciplines for actively engaging the public, and training people in proper techniques for observation, identification, and documentation. Entomology is lagging behind at a time when we are desperate for more information. Insects are more than a little challenging compared to vertebrate animals, and present unique problems, but let's recognize and address those shortcomings now instead of waiting until it is too late.

Birding and Herping and Enting, Oh, My!

Birding, the scientific and recreational observation of avian organisms, has been around for decades, if not a century or more, and is experiencing a renaissance of sorts thanks to the likes of Jeffrey Gordon, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, and a host of other ornithologists and experts who make a point of recruiting new "birders" to the ranks. Jason Ward is among the new generation of birders making birding more popular and inclusive than ever.

.... if birds are everywhere, insects are "everywhere-er-er."

Meanwhile, "herping," the seeking of reptiles and amphibians, is also a popular hobby that contributes substantially to our collective understanding of the abundance and distribution of snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, turtles, and their kin. There are rules for how to undertake the activity with minimal stress to the animals, and maximum reward for the participating humans. Collaborations between professional herpetologists and amateur enthusiasts are common and encouraged.

"Ent-ers" observing a hornet nest from a safe distance

So, in light of the success of birding, herping, and other wildlife-watching, why not "enting?" The appeal of birding is said to come from the fact that birds are everywhere, and so are instantly observable anywhere. Well, if birds are everywhere, insects are "everywhere-er-er." You don't even have to leave the average home to find them, nor even look out the window. Just point a flashlight into some dim corner of the basement. Ok, maybe start somewhere less spooky....

The Void and The Fun

Entomologists lament that they have little data to chart the abundance and diversity of insects over time, but are reluctant to admit that citizen scientists can inform that discussion in any fashion. The scientific community either wants data or it doesn't, and there are only so many professionals to go around. Most of those experts are busy identifying potential crop pests or inventing new ways to combat existing pest species.

Given the irritating connotations of "bugging," not to mention the scientific inaccuracy of such a term if it were applied to insect-watching, "enting" is probably the most all-encompassing and appropriate name for the observation of insects, and by extension arachnids and other arthropods as well.

© Amanda Accamando
"Mothing" during National Moth Week

"Mothing" is already a recognized pursuit, usually involving deployment of a blacklight and/or mercury vapor light, a reflective white surface such as a sheet, and a camera or phone to record whatever is attracted. Sometimes mothing involves "sugaring," painting a fermented bait onto tree trunks. "Oding," pronounced "O-ding," is the quest for dragonflies and damselflies. This ideally requires a catch-and-release technique such that one can document the external genitalia of male specimens, often the only way to achieve a solid identification beyond genus.

The Obstacles to Overcome

One enormous hurdle that must be overcome is the insistence of some professional entomologists that the only viable records of a species are those that involve a collected "voucher specimen." Collecting, and imaging of live specimens, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two complement each other. Photos often give more context than specimens because the host plant may be included in the image, a certain behavior depicted, or even the ecosystem itself be recorded. This is especially true for quality videography, but still images are also valuable. Lastly, if you cannot identify something as unique as a Filigree Skimmer dragonfly from a photo, then I question your credibility as an authority.

Filigree Skimmer dragonfly, male

While some scientists must be convinced of the capacity of the public to aid them in truly scientific investigations, the public has to be convinced they can be brought up to speed in ways that can make them the most effective contributors to the cause. One impediment to embracing insects as wildlife is the lack of "common names," the English labels assigned to some species, but completely absent for most invertebrate species. Species are assigned standardized Latin or Greek (or combination thereof) names by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. They abide by strict rules governing such things as name "gender," and engage in exhaustive research for historical synonyms and other matters that affect the naming of species. Tasking the commission with the creation of English names is simply asking too much.

A Plea For a Common Names Initiative

It may be worthwhile to create a complementary body that does precisely that: generate standardized English names for insects, arachnids, and other arthropods. It would be no small feat, involving at minimum the translation of the Latin and Greek. While the Entomological Society of America has a Common Names Committee, we need something bigger. This could help the public understand just how descriptive and appropriate (and sometimes whimsical) scientific names can be, while making the study of the organisms more user-friendly. Further, it would enhance the appeal for conservation measures if the insect had a more easily-pronounceable name for media relations. In some cases, common naming rights could be auctioned as a conservation fundraiser, probably with fewer objections than the same mechanism for generating scientific names for newly-discovered species.

The Future is Now

What can we agree on, then? Surely we see the value in encouraging and rewarding public curiosity about arthropods, and the potential viability of public contributions to scientific knowledge. Between Master Naturalist curricula, and advanced naturalist workshops, we can coach the ardent entomophile in the art of insect and spider identification, equipping them with the tools necessary to achieve meaningful, reproducible results. Do scientists really need to be convinced that these are worthwhile exercises?

Bugwatching can be a social pursuit, too.

It is highly encouraging to see the influence of social media, spearheaded by the most youthful generation of scholars, in sparking public interest in insects and related invertebrates. Facebook groups are full of stories of how once-fearful entomophobes have been converted to insect- and spider-lovers and advocates. Time to take the next step and turn these friends into scientific allies. Let the "enting" begin.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Results of the Red Rock Canyon Open Space Bioblitz

View of Pikes Peak from eastern edge of Red Rock Canyon Open Space

Last Friday through Sunday, July 19-21, scientists and citizen scientists descended on one of the most popular recreation sites in Colorado Springs, Colorado: Red Rock Canyon Open Space. The goal was to find as many species of living things as possible in that short time period, and I dare say that we exceeded expectations.

Melissa Blue butterfly

Red Rock Canyon was the first Open Space to be dedicated in Colorado Springs, purchased by the city back in 2003. It took ten years to complete the master plan for the 1,474 acre area. It includes an abandoned quarry, a couple of small reservoirs, and several habitats, from dense coniferous forests in its upper reaches to shortgrass prairie and meadows on the lower slopes and plateaus. It is perhaps better known for its extinct animal life, preserved as fossils in the stone outcrops and uplifts, than it is for what lives there now.

Mule Deer drinking in the evening

Hiking, trail running, horseback riding, rock climbing, and limited mountain biking are all favorite activities for humans who frequent the park. This heavy activity usually presents conflicts with those trying to observe wildlife, but animals in the park are now so adapted to people traffic that the deer all but say "excuse me" as they hustle past you to get a drink at one of the reservoirs.

© Heidi Eaton
A male Blue-eyed Darner dragonfly over one of the reservoirs

When I first proposed the idea of doing a single bioblitz to then-TOPS (Trails, Open Spaces and Parks Program) Manager Chris Leiber back in 2016, he envisioned the event at Red Rock Canyon. That proposal morphed into four bioblitzes at other Open Spaces in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of TOPS in 2017. Finally, we come full circle.

Red-tailed Hawk circling over a meadow

Colorado Springs has endured an unusually wet, cool spring and early summer, making for lush vegetation, but a relative dearth of insect life. Wildflower blooms this year have been short, sporadic, and far-flung, the distances between clumps of flowers greater than normal. The cool weather turned immediately into a heat wave of 90-plus degrees, punctuated with near daily afternoon thunderstorms, and that is what we faced for the bioblitz.

A male Ten-lined June Beetle, Polyphylla decemlineata, one of the first arrivals at the blacklight

Thankfully, we had a dry, hot night Friday night (July 19) on which to do blacklighting for moths and other insects, and it was epic.

© Heidi Eaton
Blacklighting before it got intense

We had three stations, two featuring bright mercury vapor lights to draw insects from farther distances, and one that was outfitted "only" with an ultraviolet (UV) light. All three stations were humming with activity and no two people saw the same insects and arachnids.

A female Spotted Pine Sawyer, Monochamus clamator at the blacklight

During the day, participants fanned out from "base camp" under a pavilion near the reservoirs to explore the surrounding landscape. One of our entomologists, Rose Ludwig, made an exceptional discovery when she took photos of a small, male clearwing moth on Saturday. She revisited the same location on Sunday and got images of the female.

© Rose Ludwig
Male Carmenta wildishorum clearwing moth

All our images and observations were recorded in an iNaturalist project, and there was immediate interest in Rose's find. It turns out to be a Colorado state record for Carmenta wildishorum, a species described only two years ago from specimens taken in New Mexico.

©Rose Ludwig
Female Carmenta wildishorum clearwing moth

Tim Leppek, Aaron Driscoll, Kaya Woodall, Debbie Barnes-Shankster, Bill Shankster, Heidi Eaton, and myself added even more observations of various arthropods to complement the work of botanists, mammologists, birders, and mycologists.

Three-banded Grasshopper, Haddrotettix trifasciatus, a surprising find

With the results of mammal and fungi experts still pending, we have already amassed a stunning 481 taxa (classifications ranging from family-level to species-level) for less than three full days of exploration. Many family designations include more than one genus or species, so numbers are likely to increase as more specific identifications are made. Still, not every genus or species can be identified from images alone. The mushroom experts will be doing detailed DNA work to arrive at their conclusions, for example.

Male sand wasp, Steniolia elegans

The Red Rock Canyon Open Space bioblitz concluded appropriately when the volunteer organizer, Sharon Milito, was presented with a Spirit of the Springs Celebration Award by Mayor John Suthers. Sharon has become a great friend and mentor over the last three years, and without her we would not have bioblitzes and I would not have gotten to visit Jimmy Camp Creek Park and Corral Bluffs Open Space, parcels that are not yet open to the public. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this honor.

An owlet moth, Xestia bolteri, from the blacklight

Please do check out the iNaturalist project page, hyperlinked a couple paragraphs back, to see the full results of this undertaking. I wish to thank Bell Mead, and Renee McDougal for facilitating involvement of the Mile High Bug Club in all the bioblitzes, and managing our club's booth at base camp.

Tree Swallow fledgling waiting to be fed

Saturday, July 6, 2019

My Kind of Fourth of July

While most folks enjoy fireworks spectacles and flag-waving on Independence Day here in the United States, I would rather turn on our backyard blacklight and see what comes to visit. The neighbors did have some surprisingly professional-looking explosions, albeit they are illegal here in the city of Colorado Springs. I did my best to tune-out the loud noise.

Ruddy-winged Dart, Euxoa mimallonis

The U.S. was founded by immigrants, and has prospered from ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity, though we seem to frown on "minorities" in our present political climate. Here under my ultraviolet light, I see plenty of biological diversity, a melting-pot of insects that makes the ecosystem run even more efficiently than capitalism fuels our economy. One cannot help but observe the similarities, though the niches in ecosystems are filled by a variety of species while niches in the economy are occupied by only one: Homo sapiens.

White miller caddisfly, Nectopsyche sp.

Nature does not recognize villains or criminals or classes or any other structure relevant to our human societies. Every species is equal, adapting as it is able to constantly-changing conditions of climate, habitat, and competition from other species. Yes, some immigrant insects do compete with native species for the same "job" in the ecosystem, that much is obvious.

Damsel bug, Nabis sp., with leafhopper prey

While some insects do come to the blacklight to prey on other insects, most coexist peacefully under the purple glow. Occasionally one will blunder into another, causing both animals to run erratically or fly abruptly, only to quickly settle again without armed conflict or undue protest. Still other insects make a brief appearance, flirting with my desire to take their picture. Sometimes I get the shot, often I do not.

Crambid moth, Pyrausta insequalis

Every color of the rainbow has arrived. White is among the rarest. There is green, red, yellow, orange, black, brown....There are plain, monochrome bugs, and those with patterns too intricate to imagine. The moths often lose their colors as the night wears on, the scales on their wings lost with each wingbeat, each collision with the abrasive netting protecting the blacklight, each collision with another insect. It does not hamper their flight in the least.

Ant-mimicking plant bug, Pilophorus sp.

This one night, our celebration of America's birthday, may also be an insect's final fling, its days as an adult all too brief, just long enough to find a mate and reproduce. Some moths flourish for only a week at most, sometimes even more briefly. They have spent the bulk of their lives as caterpillars, larvae that are feeding-and-growing machines. At the end of that worm-like stage they transform into the pupa. Apparently inert on the outside, the pupa is a frenzy of internal reorganization as cells are re-purposed, some genes are turned off, and other genes turned on. It is a microcosm of a rapidly-changing economy with employees re-trained, whole new industries born, with all the promise of positive change each would suggest.

Delphacid planthopper, Bostaera nasuta

Has my blacklight beacon derailed the destinies of these insects? Some will surely be diverted from their procreative goals, from their foraging missions if they feed as adults. I make a point of turning the light off before I, myself, turn in, to give the insects a chance to resume their lives without distraction, though in a city full of lights they may well end up concentrated at the neighbor's porch light, or a streetlight up the boulevard. It is a hazard of urban living for those insects that reside in cities.

Green lacewing, family Chrysopidae

At last the auditory noise has abated, and the attractiveness of the blacklight has reached a point of diminishing returns. I must sleep, and it will only be four or five hours until the sun peeks over the eastern horizon to put an end to the nocturnal adventures of these tiny arthropods. The summer days are long, the nights brief, and insects must make the most of that narrow window of darkness. The day shift will begin, and niches will transfer ownership accordingly. There is no timecard to punch, but there are no holidays, either, no middle management, just life, pulsing as it will.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

World Bee Day....A Little "Bee"hind

World Bee Day happened the other day, May 20, and it caught me off guard. I had never heard of it, and hustled to make some social media posts for the Facebook groups I founded or administer. I will plan a bigger campaign of celebration next year, but for now....

In fairness, World Bee Day has not been in existence very long. The date honors the birthday of Anton Janša of Slovenia, a pioneer of modern beekeeping in the eighteenth century. The United Nations passed a resolution submitted by Slovenia in 2017 to so honor him. While beekeeping in the northern hemisphere applies only to honey bees in the genus Apis, the U.N. has chosen to use World Bee Day as an opportunity to acknowledge all bee species, the vast majority of which are solitary and not managed by human beings.

North American bees range from giant "large carpenter bees" like this one....

Given the plight of pollinators in general, and the threats to apiculture (beekeeping) from mites, pesticides, industrial-scale agriculture, habitat destruction, and climate....anomalies of increasing frequency, it is easy to be pessimistic and sorrowful on World Bee Day. However, there are signs of hope all around us.

....to tiny Perdita mining bees like this one.

More people are taking up apiculture as a hobby, for example. Even better, many homeowners and small-scale farmers are recognizing the importance of native bees and building simple housing for them in the shape of "bee condos." Now a small movement is building to advocate for allowing those bare patches of soil in your lawn and flowerbed to lie fallow. The overwhelming majority of solitary bees in North America nest in burrows they excavate in the ground. Sometimes many females will nest in close proximity, giving the illusion of a "hive" or a swarm. This is not the case, and unless you step on a bee in bare feet or forcibly grab one, it is not going to sting you. Different bee species prefer different textures of soil, from sandy to clayey.

Leafcutter bees, Megachile sp., using "bee block."

Among the many reasons to celebrate World Bee Day this year is the rediscovery of the world's largest bee, Wallace's Giant Resin bee, Megachile pluto, nesting in termite mounds in Indonesia. It is an important reminder that the natural world is resilient, to at least some degree, and that most species can persist even in unfavorable circumstances.

Female cactus bee, Diadasia sp., entering her burrow.

Colorado, where my wife and I live, ranks fifth in bee diversity in the USA, boasting at least 946 species from huge bumble bees to tiny mining bees in the genus Perdita. California (1,651), Arizona (1,182), New Mexico (991), and Utah (979) rank ahead of us. That makes for a lot of bee species that need conservation if we want to continue enjoying wildflowers and eating everything from blueberries to squash to almonds.

We can encourage bees by....

  • landscaping with native trees, shrubs, herbs, and flowers.
  • Erecting bee blocks as supplementary housing for solitary bees (and wasps) that normally nest in the dead trees we cut down and logs we haul off.
  • Become "weed tolerant" of plants that volunteer in our yards, as long as they are not state-listed noxious weeds. Chances are they are native or naturalized wildflowers instead.
  • Leave a few bare patches in the lawn (if you still insist on having a lawn) and flowerbeds so that ground-nesting bees have a place to call home.
  • Advocate for changes to municipal and HOA codes and rules that currently discourage eco-friendly landscaping.

It goes without saying that eliminating pesticides and other chemicals from your yard and garden will greatly benefit all life, not just on your property but elsewhere, too, as pesticides drift on the wind and flow in runoff from rain and watering.

Female sweat bee, Agapostemon sp., living up to her name.

World Bee Day is behind us this year, but no worries. You can gear up now to celebrate National Pollinator Week next month, June 17-23, 2019. Tell me how you plan(t?) to respect that designated "holiday." Maybe you need to do what I should do, which is call my governor and ask why Colorado is not yet on the map for it....

Cuckoo bee, Nomada sp., leaving (left), small carpenter bee, Ceratina sp., arriving (right).

Friday, May 10, 2019

On The Radio

On May 3, Gregory S. Paulson and myself appeared on the radio program Outdoor Life, on WMKV in Cincinnati, Ohio to talk about our book, Insects Did It First. You can hear the 30-minute program at this link.

Carol Mundy © WMKV 89.3 FM

We are very grateful to host Carol Mundy for both the invitation to interview, and the thought-provoking questions she asked us about insect-inspired inventions. You will want to listen to Outdoor Life every Friday afternoon at 1 PM Eastern Time, or via archived podcasts (scroll down the list for prior shows). Learn more at her website The Crow Knows. Carol and her husband Jim present programs about nature to various groups and organizations.

Meanwhile, Greg and I welcome additional media exposure from your local radio station, podcast, or other platforms. I am sure Carol would agree that we are nothing if not entertaining. You may contact me at bugeric247ATgmailDOTcom.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Borids Are Not Bor-ing

Well, that will teach me to never go anywhere without a vial or other appropriate vessel for containing a live insect. It is impossible to know when you will be presented with an unusual or rare species, so best to be prepared. A case in point occurred on Saturday, April 20, while I was manning the booth for the Mile High Bug Club at the Earth Day expo in Garden of the Gods Park here in Colorado Springs.

Lecontia discicollis, 12-23 millimeters

We had erected a canopy over our table, and at one point I noticed the shadow of a beetle atop the white tarpaulin. I did not think much of it initially, but curiosity got the better of me and I went to inspect it. I am not a tall person, so all I could manage, even on my tip-toes, was a vague, rear perspective of the insect. It was enough to convince me this was something interesting, so I grabbed the beetle. It was shiny black, and slippery thanks to its convex, bullet-like shape.

Mile High Bug Club booth

A closer examination left me stumped. It reminded me of a bark-gnawing beetle in the family Trogossitidae, but those are highly agile and usually at least slightly iridescent or metallic. This beetle was jet black and decidedly slow-moving. Meanwhile, the antennae were bead-like and reminiscent of a darkling beetle (family Tenebrionidae). Few tenebrionids are so narrow-bodied, though, and those exposed jaws suggested it was something else.

Bark-gnawing beetle, Temnoscheila sp., Colorado

I had not packed any kind of container with me, even though I knew our booth would be in the visitor center parking lot. It has been a long winter and cool, slow, spring, so I wasn't expecting to see any insects.

I racked my brain for potential solutions. Ah, a little ziplock baggie I have my business cards in! Oops, so old it has a gaping hole in it. Now what? I pawed through the compartment in my backpack and managed to find a case for eyeglasses, which thankfully shuts tight enough to hold an invertebrate. In goes the beetle.

EBCD: Emergency Beetle Containment Device

Back home, I take a closer look and start leafing through my beetle books. Still scratching my head I look at all things related, even remotely, to darkling beetles. Lo and behold, I turned to an illustration that looked pretty much identical to my specimen. Above the drawing I read "Boridae," and "Family common name: The conifer bark beetles." Never heard of them. That is how diverse beetles are. Entire families can escape your attention.

Anyone hearing "bark beetle" assumes the creature in question is some type of forest pest, but many kinds of beetles associated with the trunks of trees have been assigned some derivative of "bark beetle," and almost none of them are the least bit destructive. That appears to be the case here, too, but we have a collective void of knowledge about borids.

The base of the antenna is concealed by a ridge, a helpful identification character

Consulting several references, I could find little information. The family is obscure enough that several books did not even include them, or were of sufficient vintage that the family did not yet exist. Previously, borids had been part of the Salpingidae (narrow-waisted bark beetles). Most other information I could excavate amounted to "found under bark on conifers." It seems these beetles also like their trees baked. Ok, singed. Fine, they are basically drawn to charred timber, three to five years after a fire.

Once I had the specimen in the right family, identifying the genus and species was easy. There are only two genera, with one species each, found north of Mexico. The one in my hand was Lecontia discicollis.

I turned to Facebook, in particular the group "Friends of Coleoptera at the Natural History Museum [London]," for more help. The resulting discussion included this shared passage from Pollock (2010) in the Handbook of Zoology, Coleoptera vol. II (Leschen, Beutel & Lawrence, eds.):

"Relatively little is known, or at least published, on the habits and habitats of members of Boridae....Larvae of Lecontia discicollis are also associated with dead conifers, and seemingly are restricted to moist decayed areas in the root system of standing trees killed by fire or bark beetles (Young et al. 1996)."

Another colleague added "Lecontia discicollis is not rare if you know how to find them. Fairly common in the Black Hills [South Dakota] in and around fire killed 8-15 year old Ponderosa pine, 3-5 years after death. Larvae in soft and moist white-rotted wood near and below ground-level."

The consensus seems to be that these may be common beetles, but because they occupy such a narrow, extreme niche, you are not likely to see them very often. I will consider myself lucky, then.

Sources: Elliott, Lynette, et al. 2005. "Family Boridae - Conifer Bark Beetles," Bugguide.net
Evans, Arthur V. 2014. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 560 pp.
Pollock, Darren A. 2002. "Boridae" in Arnett, Ross H., Michael C. Thomas, Paul E. Skelley, and J. Howard Frank. American Beetles volume 2. Boca Raton: CRC Press. pp. 534-536.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Beat The Winter Blues With An Indoor Bug Hunt

Are you tired of waiting for spring to bloom? Snowed in for yet another weekend? You can find a surprising number of creatures without leaving the comfort of your home. Just how comfortable you will be after your indoor discoveries is another question, but most of your home's biodiversity will be benign.

The variety of insects in one light fixture:
dark-winged fungus gnats, carpet beetles, a weevil, aphids, thrips, gall midges....

Before you begin your indoor expedition, you might want to read Rob Dunn's Never Home Alone. The book is an excellent primer for a home bioblitz (inventory of a given taxon of organisms in a short period of time). It can give you a good idea of what to expect, and calm any potential fears. Indeed, the thesis of Never Home Alone is that the more biodiversity in your household, the better. At the end of the day you will be discarding pest control products and harsh cleaning agents....or buying more.

Web of a funnel web weaver spider in kitchen ceiling corner

Instead of being embarrassed by the cobweb in the corner, recognize the industrious nature of its maker. Compliment yourself for preserving a living pest control agent. See if you can find evidence of the insect victims the spider has trapped. Examine any shed exoskeletons to help you identify the spider itself if the living arachnid is not present. Dusty webs, unable to snare prey any longer, can be safely cleaned. Spiders will change "web sites" if they go long periods without success.

Indian Meal Moth, Plodia interpunctella

Don't forget to check your pantry. You may need a snack midway through your hunt anyway, but flour, rice, and other grains may hold unexpected insect surprises. Drugstore Beetles, Cigarette Beetles, Meal Moths, and spider beetles may be feasting on neglected stored products of vegetable origin. Dry animal-based foods can attract the Larder Beetle and carpet beetles, all members of the family Dermestidae. The wool garments in your wardrobe, and wool blankets, furs (but you have faux furs, no?), and silks are vulnerable to clothes moths and carpet beetle larvae, too. Try storing them in a cedar chest when you are not using them regularly. Cedar has proven repellent qualities and is not toxic to people or pets.

I spy some insects in there....

One of the most rewarding sources of insect diversity is a light fixture. The other day, one of our bulbs burned out and it gave me an excuse to see what insects had found their way into our home over the past several months. In our case, because we actively blacklight for moths in the backyard, we inevitably carry other tiny insects back inside after the night is over, so we might have a greater diversity of fauna than average, but probably not.

Dark-winged fungus gnats are often abundant indoors

You may not want to wait for a light bulb to expire before you examine a ceiling fixture or lamp, though. These days, the lifespan of the new generation of electrical bulbs is ridiculously long. It can be years before you have to install a new one. Further, insect specimens quickly die in the hot, dry conditions, become brittle, are eaten by carpet beetle larvae, and gather dust that makes them difficult to identify later. Best to check the lights often.

A lace bug in the light fixture?! Yep.

Last, but certainly not least, you will want to inspect for bed bugs. Adult bed bugs are small, no larger than the average apple seed. Immature stages are smaller still, some nearly transparent. You will likely see other signs of bed bugs before encountering the insects themselves, though. Should you find some, resist the temptation to blame your spouse, roommate, visiting guest, or tenants of the nextdoor apartment. Some authorities believe that one out of every four U.S. residences has bed bugs or will have them. Cimex lectularius thankfully poses no health threats that modern science is aware of. The biggest problems still stem from litigation over infestations, and the costs of eradication in a given dwelling.

Adult Bed Bug

Our home list of domiciliary creatures, including people and pets present and past, is approximately forty (40), over the last seven years or so. Clearly, we have more work to do. We do take comfort in the notion that we are providing homes for a broad spectrum of creatures, the great majority of which enhance our lives rather than detract from them.