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.