Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: Hidden Kingdom is More Than "Eye Candy"

The latest offering from scientist, author, and photographer extraordinaire Piotr Naskrecki is sure to surprise and delight even the most seasoned tropical naturalist, student of entomology, and globe-trotting eco-traveler. Hidden Kingdom: The Insect Life of Costa Rica (Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, 2017) represents one of the best introductions to arthropods in general, regardless of the geographic limitations noted in the title.

The centerpiece of this book, like his previous works, the critically acclaimed The Smaller Majority and Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine, is Naskrecki's mind-blowing imagery of creatures easily overlooked in the natural landscape. He literally renders his subjects larger than life, but then explains how the impact of these invertebrates far exceeds their diminutive stature. So, the magnified macro-world in pictures is simply a reflection of the unheralded, underestimated import of insects, spiders, other arachnids, and crustaceans to the rest of life on Earth. He further communicates this with clear, assertive prose that elevate any reader's understanding of the natural world.

The organization of the book makes it all the more inviting to those who might be unfamiliar with insects (the first chapter asks "What is This?"), or even downright afraid of them. He addresses the intimidation factor head-on in the chapter "Is it Dangerous?" He deftly explains why appearances like "Horns, Spines, and Claws" can be deceiving, but tiny sand flies and mosquitoes can put you in the hospital because of the tinier-still parasitic microbes that they inject when they bite you.

Remaining chapters discuss how insects survive through camouflage, chemical defenses, advertisement of those chemical defenses, and mimicry of other species with chemical defenses, as well as how insects communicate and how those devices for talking to each other allowed some insects to ascend to the truest societies in the animal kingdom.

Scientific terms are generally explained in context, with their first usage in the text, though the book might still have benefited by a glossary, even in place of the index. Some of the taxonomy (scientific classification) differs from what I have come to know, but there exist differences even in scientific circles and these discrepancies cannot be considered errors. Yes, there are a couple of grammatical errors, but I have yet to read a contemporary book without any.

Naskrecki refrains from preaching about the imperiled ecosystem that is tropical forests, and considering that he no doubt witnesses deforestation and other destructive practices every time he goes afield, this restraint is admirable and refreshing. If anyone ever asks "what's the big deal" if we cut down the Amazon, hand them a copy of Hidden Kingdom and ask them to get back to you. This book is a testament to exactly what is at stake for not just the healthy functioning of our planet, but for the future of advances in medicine and other human endeavors.

I would not hesitate to recommend Hidden Kingdom as a textbook for any college-level introductory entomology course. The initial chapter alone informs all the major orders of insects, independent of Costa Rica; but, those professors who teach classes in tropical natural history would do well to assign this book in advance of field trips to the New World rainforests, and dry forests.

Naskrecki has made advances in tropical biology of a magnitude comparable to Darwin, Wallace, and other heroic naturalists of a bygone era. One can scarcely believe that Piotr has the time to write and illustrate books, share his findings on social media (Facebook in particular), lead film crews into the forest (PBS Nature's six-part "Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise"), or mentor other photographers (BugShot macrophotography workshops), but he accomplishes all of this and more. His is a brilliant mind and generous spirit that are a rare combination. Naskrecki is without question one of the most publicly accessible scientists of our time, even considering that the digital age makes nearly everyone "followable."

Hidden Kingdom is a paperback book of 208 pages. Forgive the awkward dimensions (10 X 10 inches), as it dramatically amplifies the impact of the magnificent photos. Reward and promote excellence in science and art by treating yourself, your family, and friends to a copy of this most outstanding reference.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Don't Try This (Pest Control Method) At Home

The news is replete with stories of people who have accidentally destroyed their homes, workplaces, and other structures in an attempt to kill a spider or insect. These are the sensational and drastic results of misguided intent, but there are many other negative consequences possible from do-it-yourself pest control. Do not be a sucker, a law-breaker, or the next headline.

A Word About Spiders

At this time of year, spiders venturing indoors is a top complaint of many homeowners. Please understand that if you notice a spider in your home or office it is an indication of....absolutely nothing. It is not out to get you. It is not a sign of an "infestation." It is not a sign that there are more to come. Male spiders of all kinds are on the prowl for females, and even those species that normally spin webs abandon them to look for mates, mostly in autumn. There are also plenty of spiders that never spin webs, like wolf spiders, jumping spiders, and longlegged sac spiders. Both males and females traverse large areas in search of prey. Occasionally, they will find their way indoors. Simply coax one of these spiders into a container and escort it outside to a log, stone wall, brush pile, or other place it can easily find cover. Thank you.

Foggers

Foggers are also known as "bug bombs," and can live up to that name if you fail to follow the deployment instructions to the letter. Forgetting to extinguish a pilot light on the water heater or furnace before detonating a fogger can result in burning your home to the ground, or blowing it to bricks and splinters. Moreover, as with any general insecticide, you are killing beneficial insects, and spiders and other arachnids, along with whatever pest you were targeting. Yes, those cobweb weavers in the corner are already controlling pests like carpet beetles and fungus gnats, and other household nuisances.

Read the Instructions!

Use a DIY product if you must, but be aware that improper application of that product is a violation of federal law. That is correct: You are subject to prosecution for misusing pest control products and devices. Yes, we do have to make a federal case out of it because the consequences of your ignorance can be far-reaching. This is especially true of lawn and garden chemical treatments. There is a reason that commercial landscape services are required to post those flags and signs after they poison, err, "treat" your lawn.

One of the most common mistakes with over-the-counter products is the assumption that using a greater quantity than prescribed in the label instructions will be more effective. The "more is better" philosophy can compromise the health of yourself, your family members, guests, and pets. Furthermore, some people may be hypersensitive to chemicals in the product, even if they are "inert" ingredients and not active compounds.

Don't Fall for "Harmless" Alternative Products

Say you do have the best interest of the environment at heart. You want the most benign, but still effective, "green" alternative. Good for you, but tune your scam senses to high alert, then. Among the most popular and well-advertised devices are those ultrasonic repellent thingies. They have been scientifically proven time and time again to be essentially worthless. Do not fall for it.

Consult the Proper Authorities

"Bug Eric" is not an expert on pest control. When in doubt, ask unbiased professionals about pest control products and strategies. Look for resources and agencies that do not have an agenda and are unaffiliated with either industry or non-profit organizations. The Environmental Protection Agency has a web page on the Do's and Don'ts of Pest Control that is a good place to start. Use your local branch of the Cooperative Extension Service for recommendations specific to your geographic location. The National Pesticide Information Center, headquartered at Oregon State University, is a wealth of factual information and additional resources. Subscribe to Consumer Reports magazine, a product of an independent product-testing institution that enjoys a stellar reputation in matters of consumer awareness and public safety.

Did I Mention Prevention?

It bears repeating that taking measures to prevent pests from gaining a foothold indoors or on your property, is the best solution. I will continue to post on this subject, but you can do your own research, too. Remember your neighborhood librarian is your best friend, and your library a wealth of information now networked with other public libraries, university libraries, and other resources around the world. Maybe you will begin with books like Tiny Game Hunting or The Humane Gardener.

Be In It For The Long Haul

Above all, understand that pest control never ends. There is no permanent solution. As the authors of Tiny Game Hunting write, "Thinking we can get rid of our pests permanently in one fell swoop is like taking a shower and believing we will be clean for the rest of our lives." Patience, persistence, and vigilance is necessary to keep the upper hand. Altering your mindset, your level of tolerance, and understanding of your insect and arachnid "enemies" is also key. We may need an attitude adjustment before we do anything else.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Couple of Weirdos

My last post here focused on the joys of National Moth Week, but what I neglected to mention was the added benefit of other insects being attracted to blacklights. Sometimes you get strange and significant surprises at your ultraviolet beacon. This is the story of two of those.

Clown beetle, Ulkeus intricatus, from Chico Basin Ranch

During our first moth week event at Chico Basin Ranch on July 21, we were all taking images of the moths that were drawn to our lights. There were plenty of other insects, too, like true bugs, flies, even a few wasps, plus lacewings, antlions, and beetles. I tried to document most everything, but it was not until I began editing my pictures that I noticed something spectacularly wierd. In one corner of an image of a moth was a beetle I recognized instantly as a "clown beetle" in the family Histeridae, but it had strange flanges on its legs and was a lot more bristly and "groovy" than the usual hister beetle.

It was reddish in color, too, while nearly all other clown beetles are jet black. I was aware that some clown beetles are found only in association with ants, and so I began looking at various species in the subfamily Hetaeriinae. Sure enough, up popped Ulkeus intricatus as the most likely suspect.

Legionary ants, Neivamyrmex sp., hosts of the clown beetle

So, now I begin researching this species, or at least the genus, to find out what its life history is like. It turns out that it is found only in the company of legionary ants in the genus Neivamyrmex, which makes things stranger still. Legionary ants are in a group of ants that includes army ants. They are nomadic, and mostly nocturnal, raiding the nests of other ants to prey on the larvae and pupae. This explains why the beetle was flying just after sunset: It was looking for a party of legionary ants and got distracted by our UV lights.

Exactly what the beetle does with, or to, the ants is largely unknown. My references say that the beetles are "guests" of the ants, which could mean anything from mutualism to kleptoparasitism (mutually beneficial relationship versus stealing the ant's food), or something else entirely. Exactly how the beetle would complete its life cycle if its host has no nest raises questions, too, though Neivamyrmex colonies are known to be sedentary over the winter.

Male legionary ants like this one fly to lights at night, too

There are six recognized species in the genus Ulkeus in the U.S., collectively ranging from North Carolina and Tennessee to Florida and west to Texas and Arizona. Five of those species are yet to be named and described, so I may be jumping the gun to assign a species to this one, especially since I never saw the thing let alone collected it. For all I know it is a seventh species.

Braconid wasp, Chrysopophthorus americanus

My wife and I put out a blacklight near Lyons, Colorado on July 22, despite cool and damp conditions, and among the many insects that flew in was a small, ghostly-looking wasp. I recognized that it was probably a member of the family Braconidae, wasps parasitic on other insects, but was baffled after that. Thankfully, there is Bugguide.net, and I started browsing the images to see if anyone else had recorded this wasp and, if so, was it identified.

Lo and behold, there it was, identified as Chrysopophthorus americanus. That almost never happens, being able to get a species identification that way. What's more, I learned that this wasp is a parasite of adult green lacewings (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Talk about a specialized niche. Since lacewings are often attracted to lights, it stands to reason that their parasites would be, too. Apparently the female wasp inserts her egg into the abdomen of the lacewing. The larva that hatches then feeds as an internal parasite inside the lacewing, eventually exiting to pupate.

Those beautiful emerald eyes!

What a wacky couple of "bugs." That is what I love about entomology, and natural history in general: You never know where one observation is going to take you, how one species intertwines with others....It is supposed to be a mild night here on October 21 and I am half-tempted to put the sheet and the blacklight out.

Sources: Caterino, Michael S. and Alexey K. Tishechkin. 2009. "A New North American Genus of Hetaeraiinae (Coleoptera: Histeridae), with Descriptions of Six New Species from the U.S.A. and Mexico," Zootaxa, 2311: 1-18.
Maxwell, John R., et al. 2008. "Species Chrysopophthorus americanus," Bugguide.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Remembering National Moth Week 2018

A tiger moth, Apantesis sp., from Lyons, Colorado, July 22.

Today it is cold, foggy, and there is still some snow leftover from yesterday here in Colorado Springs. What better time to look back on warmer times and the insects that could be found back then? National Moth Week this year was July 21-29. Despite the fact there was a full moon during that period (the worst possible conditions for putting out a blacklight because the lunar light is literally superior competition that nocturnal insects navigate by), we had very interesting results along the Front Range.

A leaf blotch miner moth, Caloptilia sp., from Chico Basin Ranch on July 21.

As has been the case for at least three years now, the Mile High Bug Club sponsored and executed local events during National Moth Week. Weather conditions varied considerably, as that time of year represents our season of almost daily storms, but we persevered and accumulated good data sets from casual observations and imaging. We posted most of our images to iNaturalist, and anyone can search by location and date for the results.

This large Carolina Sphinx moth, Manduca quinquemaculatus, showed up at Chico Basin Ranch on July 21.

For the second year in a row we kicked off the week on Saturday, July 21, at Chico Basin Ranch, a sprawling 80,000+ acre parcel that straddles the El Paso and Pueblo County line. This year we were again on the El Paso County side, setting up our lights at the bird banding station composed of a building and a nearby barn.

Emerald geometer moth and friends, Chico Basin Ranch

Almost immediately we attracted moths, beetles, true bugs, flies, and other insects to our blacklights and mercury vapor light. Thanks to being located well away from water, we were not inundated with caddisflies, variegated mud-loving beetles, and other aquatic insects like we were last year; so, the night was much more comfortable and we did not inhale any insects accidentally, nor take that many home in our vehicles.

Rufous-banded Crambid moth, Mimoschinia rufofascialis, Chico Basin Ranch

Insect diversity in general was very good, in a year in which overall insect abundance has been exceptionally low. The diversity of habitats at the ranch, most natural and some man-made, has much to do with the biodiversity of insects, birds, and other wildlife found there.

An owlet moth, Grotella septempunctata, from Cheyenne Mountain State Park, July 24.

Our second of four events was on Tuesday, July 24, at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just south of Colorado Springs off of Highway 115. The park always welcomes us and adds our events to their schedule for the campers in the park to enjoy. Indeed, we had a respectable, if brief, turnout from visitors. Many families had children that were either up past their bedtimes already (especially those from different time zones), or were easily bored, or both.

Ilia Underwing moth, Catocala ilia, from Bear Creek Nature Center, July 27.

Our third event was Friday, July 27, at Bear Creek Nature Center in Bear Creek Regional Park, and it included a presentation on moths by yours truly. We had a very good public turnout, but the weather was absolutely miserable. At least the rain stopped by the end of the talk so that we could deploy our lights on the deck out back. Thankfully, a large underwing moth made an appearance, and even stayed long enough for everyone to get a look. Most of the other moths were small and difficult to see on the stucco-textured exterior of the building.

Artichoke Plume Moth, Platyptilia carduidactylus, at Bear Creek Nature Center, July 27.

We were back at Cheyenne Mountain State Park for our concluding event on July 28. Once again we had questionable weather, and zero attendance from the public. Still, if you light it up, they (moths) will come, and that night was no exception.

Jaguar Flower Moth, Schinia jaguarina, at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, July 28.

My wife and I also took a weekend trip to Lyons, Colorado, north of Boulder (northwest of Longmont), July 22-24. We stayed at Stone Mountain Lodge and Cabins, and did our blacklighting there. The wooded area, with cliffs rising above the lodge, along with landscape trees, shrubs, and plants, supported quite a diversity of moths and other insects, even given the unseasonably cool, damp weather.

A twirler moth, Aristotelia sp., from Lyons, Colorado on July 22.

Next year, Mile High Bug Club may opt to do fewer events during the designated National Moth Week to avoid stormy weather. Here along the Front Range we seem to have two peaks in moth diversity and abundance: One in mid- to late June, the other in about mid-September. Obviously, one goal of the national event is to remain consistent in the timing and location of observations to note trends in abundance and diversity over time. That may not always be a true reflection everywhere, though. The chief goal of our bug club events is to simply recruit new members of the public to an appreciation of the butterflies of the night.

Owlet moth, Andropolia theodori, from Lyons, Colorado, August 23.