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. 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,"
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.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Sticky Truths About Claims of Disappearing Insects

What evidence is there of an "insect apocalypse" or "insect armageddon," as the press has dubbed this phenomenon since it first made headlines in late 2017? The consensus from scientific circles appears to be that concrete data is needed to complement what most are calling anecdotal observations of plunging insect abundance. There is also the recognition that quantitative studies will be difficult to produce. Meanwhile, we should be rightly concerned in light of well-known factors leading to localized insect population decreases.

Are insects leaving for good?
Bicyrtes sp. sand wasp, Colorado

Science in general is suffering from a lack of public faith due to at least two major problems. The first is perceived inconsistency. One day you hear that coffee is bad for you, the next you learn you should be drinking two cups per day. The other issue is one of guilt by association with government or industry. Scientific research is typically funded by either the federal government or the R & D (research and development) departments of private corporations. Cynical citizens will claim that both government and industry have agendas and they get the research results that they pay for.

The media tends to amplify both of these concerns, and if you don't read beyond headlines you are likely to throw up your hands and conclude that you cannot trust science about anything, from dietary recommendations to vaccinations to climate change. Science will tell you not to trust the media, but go straight to the source, which is usually a scientific paper or journal article that will be borderline incomprehensible to the average person.

A third problem with the public trust is simply a lack of understanding of how science operates. Science learns through observation and/or experimentation. The scientist begins with a hypothesis, an assumption if you will, that is then proven or disproven through the scientific method of experimentation. Observed results must be reproduced by other scientists before the hypothesis is accepted as fact. This process may take years or even decades.

The digital age has reduced our attention spans and patience to a fraction of what is necessary to appreciate the scientific method, and so we jump to unsubstantiated conclusions with far too much regularity. Advertising masquerades as science. We surround ourselves with friends on social media who echo our beliefs and suspicions. All of those voices are magnified by our favorite conservative or liberal news outlet.

This is the state of literacy, or lack thereof, that science faces, including entomologists trying to give perspective to the dire reports of catastrophic insect collapses. The fact is that we do not have a proper historical baseline for comparing previous abundance of insects with current populations anywhere on the planet. We cannot do quantitative analyses retroactively, so the best science can do is begin that work now. By the time a conclusion is reached, it might be too late to act to avert a biodiversity and biomass disaster if one is in the offing.

What science cannot do is mandate action in the face of any of its findings, and that is equally problematic. We have known for a long while that overuse of pesticides is a problem, regardless of whether it is a factor in the decline of insect populations as a whole. We understand habitat destruction and fragmentation is the greatest threat to all species, yet our cities continue to sprawl, new roads and other physical barriers cut off migration and dispersal paths, and the scale of agriculture grows by leaps and bounds.

The conclusion I reach from this perspective is that it probably does not matter if there is a crisis in insect biodiversity and abundance because we are not acting decisively enough, or on a large enough scale, to address the other crises for which we already have agreement. It boils down to this: You can have unlimited individual and corporate wealth, or you can have a healthy planet. You can trust in the scientific method, or you can wear the blinders of ignorance and superstition.

Products are not going to be the answer to our global ecosystem problems. Scaling down the economy, agriculture, and natural resource consumption is key. Making a personal commitment to landscaping with native plants, growing a modest amount of your own food, aspiring to zero waste, and driving internal-combustion engine vehicles as little as possible will make more of a difference than you know. Seeing fewer smashed insects on your windshield? Maybe all the other cars already hit them.

Sources: Yong, Ed. 2019. "Is the Insect Apocalypse Really Upon Us?," The Atlantic
Saunders, Manu. 2019. "Insectageddon is a great story. But what are the facts?," Ecology Is Not A Dirty Word
Anonymous. 2019. "On the Fate of Insects, Most Troubling is How Much is Still Unknown," Entomological Society of America.
Anonymous. 2019. "Light Pollution a Reason For Insect Decline,"

Friday, February 15, 2019

About That New "Entomologist Barbie"

A few weeks ago, Mattel and the National Geographic Society announced that they were joining forces, with one noteworthy result: the introduction of "Entomologist Barbie." My initial reaction to this was an eye-roll, but judging by the reactions of most of my respected scientist colleagues, I have come to appreciate this a little more. That is not to say I no longer have reservations.

© Mattel

Lately I view almost every new item in the marketplace with skepticism because I have come to believe that "product" is seldom the answer to anything. Problems are often created for the purpose of invention. The problem that this new doll is addressing is a very real one, but the product does not solve it. The issue is the lack of women in positions of leadership in the sciences.

Traditionally, Barbie has reflected a very narrow range of career choices for women, narrower ethnic diversity, and a uniformly slender, arguably underweight, industry standard for fashion models. Mattel has gradually begun to recognize that they can have a greater market share in the toy industry by keeping up with progressive attitudes and values. Forgive my cynicism that they care about much else. At least I am less blunt than the writer of this article in The Guardian.

Perhaps the National Geographic Society partnership is having a more positive influence on the toy-maker? That would be wonderful. I was pleasantly surprised that in a cursory search of explorers, as associates of Nat Geo are called, there is a respectable balance of women and men, and recognition of global diversity among scientists and scholars. There are young people and elder statesmen. This spectrum of curious and dedicated folk is exactly what it should be, or closely approaches it.

You want a flesh-and-blood role model for your girls? Ok, I can offer some, like Dr. May Berenbaum of the National Academy of Sciences. How about Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker, the "Bug Chicks?" There's "Bug Gwen" who writes for Wired. Dr. Stephanie Dole is the "Beetle Lady" who makes her living doing presentations to children in California. Oh, I cannot forget Joanie Mars and Nancy Miorelli from Ask an Entomologist. I could go on and on with only the esteemed women scientists I know personally. Most of them are shockingly accessible to you, the public, online and in person.

All of these real-life women have had to struggle to earn the same respect granted their male counterparts. Science is still very sexist, though steadily improving, we would hope. Unfortunately, Barbie has no power to further that cause, putting more women scientists into positions of power and authority, influencing policy that is long overdue for redirection so as to be more humane, more responsive to the issues of our time.

Meanwhile, National Geographic might entertain more substantive partners from this point forward. Maybe team up with BioQuip Products so aspiring young entomologists, girls or boys, can get their very own magnifiers, insect nets, and other equipment that their professional scientist heroes use. Here is a wild idea: Idea Wild is a non-profit that puts badly-needed equipment in the hands of scientists in third world nations so that they can conduct necessary research to conserve and protect the wildlife of their homelands. They are in their twenty-fifth year of service to our conservationists abroad. They could use a higher profile and more funding.

So, before you spring for the beautiful, blonde, bug-collecting Barbie, consider whether you might make more of an impact in advancing the careers of young female scientists, including entomologists, in other ways. More plastic playthings are not going to do that. Dolls are unfortunately disposable, our youth are not. Oh, and as a colleague recently pointed out in an online whisper, Entomologist Barbie doesn't even have the right kind of microscope.

Friday, February 8, 2019

J. Drew Lanham is Why I Will Still Write This Blog

On February 4 I was prepared to sacrifice this blog in protest of the desecration about to take place at the National Butterfly Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, and all the refuges, sanctuaries, places of worship, private properties, sacred lands, historical lands, and current livelihoods in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

I was about to engage in an indefinite "blog-out" as my own hunger strike against the current U.S. presidential administration, the newly-elected (if democracy even applies) leaders of Brazil and Madagascar, and the announcement of a new highway that will likely spell the end of rainforests on the island of New Guinea.

When I feel like I am being punished, pummeled....bullied, as I do now watching everything I hold dear being dismantled and destroyed by our current government and those who support it, my impulse is to hit back. My desire is to make tangible the psychological anguish I feel. It is the same behavior seen in toddlers and entirely too many men who throw things, break things, inflict violence on the innocent. They want you to feel physically the emotional pain they suffer from, but their methods of doing so simply compound our collective societal problems.

So, my warped reasoning was that if I cannot have nice things like wildlife refuges, the right to the opportunity to experience wild places abroad, etc, then I will deprive you of my knowledge of entomology, my skills as a writer, and my thought-provoking ideas and opinions. You do not deserve them if you are silent about things that matter more than money.

© J.G. Lanham

Then I read the following post on Facebook, by a writer, conservationist, historian, and activist who I have come to consider a mentor. Dr. J. Drew Lanham (pictured above) is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, and an award-winning author. He penned this on Facebook before turning in for the night:

Insomniac's Lament

For far too many in these times, the hours fall by as joyless days. We worry and fret over everything. EVERY. THING. Each word is a transgression every thought a crime waiting to be committed. I try hardest to be my best but I know at some point soon I will fail. Isn't it inevitable? What if in my earnest attempts to be human, my imperfectionz somehow mar the perfect person I never was? Who will report my wrongs and send me to ruin? Will I show up here or on the six o'clock news? We are overwrought and wrung out with angst waiting for the worst to happen because we'll be better off in some other end. It all has my head hurting and my heart sore. Is there some cure?

Hate has found its way into my soul for people I don't even know beyond what they "tweet, or what the headlines tell me to believe -- and I cannot find the switch to flip and make it stop. Perhaps if I could only learn to somehow ignore-- but then I cannot deny or turn a blind eye to so much going wrong. There are far too many "ist's" and "isms" still with us. Fighting them all at once is like an eternal career in uphill stone rolling. Just call me Sisyphus. The stress keeps me up late into the night and makes me want to sleep midday even more. Withdrawing seems the easy answer -- just closest family and a few treasured friends --sometimes; and always wildness and birds. Wildness. and Birds.

I guess tomorrow (which has just become. now) is another day.

I'll be okay. If I just read the right books and watch the right things. Somewhere some thought police will allow me clearance. Won't they?

Anyway, sleep mercifully calls. I'll wake soon from a brief nap to wren chatter and roll the rock upslope again. I'll just think of it as job security. Sanity slips in the witching hour but for a few moments soon after the sun comes up, I'll steal away --out there, where joy comes in the form of feathers -- and I can be a movement of one before the hamster wheel spins again-- for just a few moments I'll be hashtagged to a singular cause. Just Being.

Thank you, Drew, for expressing exactly how I feel, and compelling me to soldier on, resisting not just injustice and greed and arrogance and ignorance, but my own compulsions to pull the plug on what I do best.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Stop Saying the Monarch is a "Gateway Species" for an Appreciation of Other Insects

The media, and overzealous advocates for the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, have convinced the public that the sky continues to fall. Recent headlines about how the Monarch is going extinct because the overwintering population in California is at a low ebb, down 86% in one year, elicit fear for the butterfly's future. The constant drumbeat of dire situations for the insect is one of several tactics used to keep the Monarch in the spotlight.

Meanwhile, it was also announced that the census of the overwintering Monarchs in Mexico showed an increase of 144%. These discrepancies in abundance from year to year are typical of large populations of pretty much any organism. So, why the panic?

The Monarch is the Giant Panda of invertebrates. It has a lobby built of organizations that stand to lose money unless they can manufacture repeated crises. Well-intentioned as they are, they are siphoning funding away from efforts to conserve other invertebrate species that are at far greater risk. The Monarch is not going extinct. It is even found on other continents. Only in North America is there the spectacular phenomenon of long-distance migration, but to date not a single population has perished.

A popular argument for making the Monarch an invertebrate icon is that "being such an icon has really helped us reach the average person about habitat and native plants and conservation, and by extension, the environment and climate change," as one friend on social media put it. Well, if only that were true. If people who care about the Monarch had any understanding of ecology at all, they would not be complaining that "there are beetles eating the milkweed I planted for Monarchs!" They would not be devastated because one wasp killed one of the caterpillars. They would not ask "how do I get rid of [insect x] and still keep my butterflies?" Nature does not work that way. It does not allow you to play favorites.

Those who rear in captivity Monarch caterpillars found in the wild rarely understand the complexities of the insect's life cycle. Fertile female butterflies flit leaf to leaf, "tasting" each milkweed plant by scratching the foliage with their tarsi (feet). This irritates the plant, causing it to reveal just how toxic it is. Milkweed plants, named for their milky sap, contain potent toxins called cardiac glycosides. Monarchs have evolved not only to cope with those poisons, but to sequester them for their own defense, advertised in the caterpillars by a bold pattern of black, yellow, and white bands. However, many individual milkweed plants are still too toxic to be consumed by insects.

Walk through a large patch of milkweed and plant after plant may be devoid of Monarch caterpillars, milkweed beetles, weevils, aphids, and other milkweed specialists. Then, one plant....everybody. They all found the weakest plant, still toxic, but not deadly to them. People who rear Monarchs may not understand this and wonder why their caterpillars are eating poorly or even dying.

Ok, enough complaining about an undereducated but compassionate public. Are there solutions? Yes. Number one, entomologists and naturalists need to stop obsessing over Monarchs and do a vastly better job of teaching about how ecology works, stressing why we need to foster and tolerate all organisms, regardless of whether they are likeable. We must advocate for landscaping with native trees, shrubs, and flowers of all kinds through programs like Habitat Hero by Audubon Rockies. We need to address city codes and the rules of HOAs to reflect the importance of doing away with manicured lawns and exotic plants that offer no habitat or sustenance for wildlife. The nursery industry needs to come around and support initiatives for natural landscapes at the personal property level, in business and industrial parks, and along road corridors.

Thank you, this concludes this public service announcement, brought to you by face-palming entomologists everywhere who study insects other than the Monarch.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019


Barring a miracle, construction of another segment of the U.S.-Mexico border wall will begin in the Lower Rio Grande River Valley (LRGV) in mid-February. Many people are under the mistaken notion that the President has not achieved his funding goal for the border barrier. While this is true, in part, funding for the segment running through Hidalgo and Starr Counties in Texas was approved in the omnibus bill passed in March, 2018. The habitat destruction this will cause is incalculable. It will also take place during the migratory bird breeding season. Wait, there is more.

The Rio Grande (Mexico in the middle) from the National Butterfly Center. If the wall goes up you will never have this view again.
© Heidi Eaton

To pave the way for the border wall in the legal sense, executive orders rescinded protections afforded by: The National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act), The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The Archeological Resources Protection Act, The Solid Waste Disposal Act, The Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act, The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, and The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, among several other distinguished pieces of legislation (nearly thirty in total) that make this country truly great.

Band-winged Dragonlet at National Butterfly Center

Make no mistake, the construction of a border wall, or even a fence, would doom the economies and ecologies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley LRGV) in south Texas. Public and private lands alike would take the brunt of a closed border, effectively impoverishing every aspect of life in the region. I speak from having visited the area on three separate occasions. The map below shows what would be lost, effectively ceded to Mexico, south of that orange and yellow line. "What?!" you ask, "That is nowhere near the actual border!" Exactly. The true border is the Rio Grande River itself, but by law there can be no barrier constructed within the floodplain of the river. The wall will therefore be placed on existing levees on the U.S. side, far from the riverbank.

Map taken from "No Border Wall" post on Facebook

Among our favorite places in Texas is Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, a world-famous destination for tourists wishing to see birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other watchable wildlife found nowhere else in the United States. The planned route for the border wall would exclude visitors from half of the current acreage, if the park even remained open to the public at all. This is what the average American does not seem to understand: The rights of American citizens will be denied as a result of this massive undertaking.

Black Setwing at National Butterfly Center

The National Butterfly Center, where new U.S. records for Mexican species are documented almost annually, will likewise be heavily compromised, and that is private property. Why Libertarians and others who hold private property in sacred esteem are not up in arms over this is beyond me. There was a lawsuit filed, but because all afforded protections were removed in the rescinded federal laws, the lawsuit was dismissed.

Were it not for persistent and vocal protests, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge would already be bisected by the wall. For now it has received a temporary stay of execution (of wall construction). The refuge is a gem, with a variety of habitats and mind-blowing biodiversity from "bugs" to birds.

Altamira Oriole, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, behind the right-of-way for the border wall

A border wall would have a devastating impact on wildlife, for even though birds could fly over the barrier, the habitat would be so fragmented by the structure and accompanying 150-foot "enforcement zone" that migrant wildlife would no longer have refuge in their travels; and resident wildlife would likewise be displaced. Meanwhile, have we learned nothing from the insidious networks of tunnels beneath our existing border barriers? Do we truly believe for an instant that "coyotes" will be deterred from their businesses of human trafficking and gun and drug running?

Opposition to a border wall can take many forms, and you are encouraged to pursue one or more of them:

  • Engage in in-person protests at various border locations.
  • Call, write, and e-mail your U.S. Representatives and Senators to express your outrage in polite but assertive language. Demand an immediate moratorium on further border barrier construction.
  • Bombard the White House with calls, e-mails, and letters.
  • Donate to the National Butterfly Center and other conservation organizations, and humanitarian non-profits that are fighting the border wall.
  • Continue visiting the border and infusing the local economies with your tourist dollars. Ask locals how best you can help them fight the wall. Tell locals who are in denial or who are misinformed that this is an urgent and critical situation that will adversely affect them.

Harlequin Flower Scarab, National Butterfly Center

Our current U.S. President is hell-bent on erecting a highly visible monument to his own fear of immigrants and refugees instead of enacting foreign and domestic policies that would defuse volatile relations with Mexico and Central America instead of igniting more fires. He insists on punishing law-abiding citizens in the U.S. instead of crafting more stringent laws against human trafficking, and expanding the currently overworked agencies charged with handling the deluge of legitimate refugees seeking asylum.

Foreign policy should address corrupt governments that lead to mass exodus, but we need the cooperation of our allies, the UN, and other international bodies that the President has turned his back on. We may even need more official ports of entry along the border so that the few currently in play are not overwhelmed, and adjacent lands between those posts can be patrolled more easily.

Bobcat at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, behind where the border wall would go

We have by no means exhausted all our options with regard to immigration reform, but we will be taking a step backward by building a wall. We are literally robbing ourselves of precious and unique landscapes and ecosystems. Yes, Mr. President, a wall would be something concrete, literally if not figuratively, but what you personally gain from visibility you will lose by several orders of magnitude in credibility, both at home and abroad.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Death Into Art

There are countless artists who render insects and other animals with traditional media like pen, ink, pencil, paints, clay, wood, and other materials, creating a realistic representation of the organism itself or, alternatively, a whimsical or inspired interpretation thereof. What, then, do we make of art that uses deceased life forms as the medium?

Detail of Jennifer Angus' In the Midnight Garden, 2015
© Smithsonian Magazine

Your appreciation, or disapproval, may hinge on one or more facets of personal taste or ethics. Have we given collective thought to the implications of such works? Maybe we should. People tend to place animals into one or more general categories. One category is reserved for other species that benefit people directly, and usually economically, though often framed as pets or companions for which we like to think there is no "price" we could assign to those individual animals.

Another group we call "pests," or vermin, enemy species that cost us economically in terms of damage to property, pets, livestock, or livelihoods. They may even cost us our lives if they are species that can prey upon us. Those are the two major categories, though most species fall through the chasm between the two, ignored or unknown to most members of Homo sapiens

Ideally, when it comes to animals, art is a way to enhance the appreciation of other species, encourage us to think differently about them, inform us as to their unique behaviors and place in the bigger picture (outside the frame, if you will), and inspire us to learn more once we leave the gallery. I personally know dozens of artists who share that intent, and who execute amazing works. I also know artists for whom I assume that is the foundation of their works, but who use insects themselves as raw material for their works. This begins to make me feel uncomfortable.

© Christopher Marley

The overwhelming message I receive from artwork composed of dead insects or their body parts is that the creature itself is not a complete expression of beauty unless it is modified by human hands into something "greater." I am quite certain this thought never crosses the mind of the artist, and that is understandable. I might even go so far as to say it is human nature to have the desire to "improve" other objects, other species. Look at every domesticated animal, every plant cultivar.

The second ethical aspect of turning deceased animals into art has to do with sourcing. Where did the specimens come from? The acclaimed artist Damien Hirst is currently creating art from dead butterflies, carefully removing the wings and applying them to boards in colorful patterns. He obtains specimens by purchasing old collections. Re-using and repurposing, so what is so bad about that? Nothing, if the collections have no scientific value, but a travesty if the specimens had location data with them. They belong in museums in that event. Other artists use "farmed" specimens bred in captivity so there is no detriment to wild populations.

An absolute purist would argue that even the best sourcing of specimens is still taking away from the carbon and nutrient cycles that other organisms benefit from. Hirst and other artists might consider simply putting out dead insects and letting carpet beetles and booklice reduce them to powder that can then be used to create more art. What an installation that would be, to bring awareness to the natural process of decay.

Dermestid beetle damage

The final insult, and I would welcome a better word, is that the artist employing organisms or their parts makes money from the exploitation of nature's works. Artists might consider donating at least a percentage of income to wildlife conservation organizations for the protection of the living versions of the dead ones they use in their works. Maybe, like Christopher Marley, they do and it is simply not widespread public knowledge.

Artists have the power to change our minds, our attitudes, and our behaviors, but it would be nice to see more respectful methods in the madness. More murals. Huge insect images like the ones rendered by Portugese artist Sergio Odeith. Spectacular glassworks like those of Rafael Glass. The real creative challenge, then, is finding new ways to exhalt nature without exploiting her. It can be done. I have faith that way.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Book Review: Bugged Delivers a Mixed Bag

Well over a year ago, someone at St. Martin's Press contacted me by e-mail asking me to review David MacNeal's latest effort, Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them (2017, St. Martin's Press, 297 pp). They would hardly take no for an answer, sent me an advance uncorrected page proof, and so finally, here is my assessment, colored by the circumstances of my receipt of the book, my lack of familiarity with MacNeal's previous works, and my personal biases, which I will reveal honestly.

First, my sincerest compliments to the author for his most thorough research, his diligent reading of numerous books and scientific papers, and in-person visits with the human subjects highlighted in Bugged. Whatever shortcomings the book may have, the foundation it was built on is as solid as they come. Additionally, I can say that in my opinion the book gets markedly better the farther the reader gets into it. Unfortunately, I found the first one-third to two-thirds of the book to be an exercise in the author's ego, perhaps due to my own peculiar style that I prefer to write in, and the approach to the subject that I would rather read.

The chapters reflect an overall theme that I am personally averse to: that in order to validate their existence, all non-human organisms must prove they have an economic value to humanity.

MacNeal may simply be trying too hard in the first chapters to convince the reader that he is edgy, funny, irreverent, intellectual, and jet-setting. It comes off as self-centered in my opinion, and aimed more toward those who value shock-and-awe prose. I prefer that an author remove themselves as much as possible from non-fiction, save for memoirs and autobiographies. I personally try to get out of the way of the story when I am writing myself, unless my direct experience is the story. I see no need for profanity ever, not because I am opposed to it, but because I think it can be a distraction if not a detraction from the rest of the words used. I do not try and paint myself as intellectually superior by throwing around words and phrases from foreign languages.

The choice of categories that define the chapters was predictable: Insect specimens as novel merchandise, social insects as a parallel to human societies, insect and spider sex lives, insects as disease-carriers, the pest control industry, insects in forensic science, insects and other arthropods as the source of inventions and advancement of technology, insects as live entertainment in Asia, entomophagy (intentional human consumption of insects as food), and honey bees as perhaps the most important of all insects (to mankind).

The chapters reflect an overall theme that I am personally averse to: that in order to validate their existence, all non-human organisms must prove they have an economic value to humanity. Maybe MacNeal recognizes this and is planning a sequel that will visit topics like endangered insects and the people working to save them, the economic impact of "ecological services" provided by insects and related invertebrates, and the myriad of citizen science projects available for his readers to participate in and become active contributors to science instead of passively entertained by his books. MacNeal does give a nod to ecological services, as almost literally a footnote (another aspect of books that I find distracting and mildly irritating); and he lists a few conservation organizations in the acknowledgements at the end of the book.

The bottom line is that I am glad the book was written, but I would have preferred that someone else had written it. If you enjoy this brand of storytelling that focuses on both insects and people, you may be better off reading works by Richard Conniff or Sue Hubbell.

Does MacNeal succeed in recruiting a new generation of entomology-appreciators? Hard to say. I think it takes actual in-person engagement with scientists to achieve that, and I hope that Bugged encourages readers to take that next, crucial step toward a better understanding of invertebrates in general, and an appreciation of those people, not the eccentrics you presume them to be, who make a living in the science of entomology.