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.

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," Phys.org