Saturday, December 26, 2009

All Grown Up

I have no idea whether she is the same individual that I introduced in ”The University Roach” back in November, but on Monday, December 14, I finally spotted an adult female brown-banded roach on the floor in my lab. Since the first sighting I have learned a little more about the species, too.

Ok, maybe what I really learned is just how much we collectively don’t know, like exactly where this species came from in the first place. My initial research concluded that Supella longipalpa is probably native to Africa. According to the second edition of How to Know the Grasshoppers, Cockroaches and Their Allies, by Jacques R. Helfer (Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, 1972), the brown-banded cockroach was known only from Florida from 1903 until at least 1917. The text further states that the species was introduced to Arizona in 1933. An asterisk footnote recognizes that “Supella longipalpa (F.) has been very successful in extending its range and has now turned up in every state.”

The homeland of this species is disputed in Stephen A. Marshall’s tome, Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity (Firefly Books, Richmond Hill, Ontario, 2006). The author states that this species is native to India, and that it is becoming increasingly common in households throughout North America.

David George Gordon, in his highly-readable book The Compleat Cockroach (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1996), agrees with the African origin of the species, adding that it wasn’t until troops returned from World War II that brown-bandeds really made inroads in the U.S., and that “By 1967, brownbandeds were reported in forty-seven of the forty-eight contiguous states.”

The Cockroach Combat Manual, by Dr. Austin M. Frishman and Arthur P. Schwartz (William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, New York, 1980) gives a more detailed description of the African scenario, indicating that this species got to Florida via Cuba (1892), arriving in Key West and Miami in 1903. No word on whether it fled Cuba due to political instability. This book also names Vermont as the sole state to be free of this pest as of 1967.

All authorities do seem to agree that this roach is most likely to be found inside furniture and electrical appliances. They have a fondness for starchy materials, too, and will munch on the paste used in bookbinding, and also on wallpaper paste. Body fluids from molting and deceased specimens can sometimes cause short circuits in televisions and other electronic equipment. Maybe there really is a bug in your computer….

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Farewell, UMass

Today was my last day at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Actually, last Friday was my “official” last day, but I wanted to tidy up before I left (and make up for the long lunches I took on the few nice days we had over the summer). I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the many people who made life on campus so pleasant during my stay.

The bureaucracy associated with new employment can be a bit overwhelming, but the ladies in the department office made things go very smoothly. Thank you to Linda, Roxanne, Lori, and Carolyn for expediting everything from my very own mailbox to the installation of a phone in the lab, and rectifying a discrepancy in my wage. You are all so friendly, too.

Ironically, I only met the Chief Investigative Officer for my lab, and the co-originator of the project I worked on, once, when I first arrived. Still, I am deeply indebted to Kevin McGarigal for providing me this employment opportunity when I needed it most. Thank you, Kevin.

Scott Jackson, co-founder of the project and my primary administrative contact, went out of his way to be a good friend as well as colleague. Given his position and responsibilities, he never appears stressed out in the least. Thanks, Scott, for setting such a great example.

The last thing Scott did was to take myself and a few others to lunch as a thank you for the work we did in the field and in the lab. Among those so honored were Charley Eiseman, who I introduced in “The Art of Insect Tracking,” and Kasey Rolih, who has been an amazing field leader for several years. She was exceedingly patient with me when she visited the lab, too. Thanks for helping me conquer the formula for converting 95% ethanol to 70%. Kasey’s husband, Brad Compton, is the guru behind the computer modeling and data evaluation for this project, since its inception. He was always willing to help solve my own computer issues, or just pause to chat about fly fishing or tell an amusing story. You never failed to make my day, Brad.

The people I owe the most to are the three women pictured here. From left to right: Jennifer Connolly, Shelley Raymond, and Theresa Portante.

Theresa, a Graduate Research Assistant, was my first and most constant contact. She hired me, helped me to find housing, and put up with me through the “growing pains” that go with any new job. Her organizational and people-management skills are amazing. She never asks anyone to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, and meets every challenge with enthusiasm and a smile. You are going to go far, Theresa, and I am honored to call you a friend and colleague.

Jennifer Connolly was exceptionally busy in the field, but her visits to the lab were always welcome. I wish I had gotten to know you better, Jennifer, but it was always a joy to see you.

Shelley Raymond spent the wet, soggy summer in the field, but I guarantee you she never complained. She spent the bulk of the fall in the lab and I felt very fortunate to have her company there. Shelley is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and toiled away at some very dirty, redundant, and, well, “fragrant” tasks processing samples taken over the summer. She never has a gripe, is always friendly, and has a great wit and sense of humor. She’ll be leaving soon for new digs in Boston and I wish her the very best. Anybody in Boston would be nuts to pass up the chance to hire this woman. If she, Jennifer, and Theresa are examples of young people today, the collective future of our society looks very bright.

I know there are people I’m leaving out. People like Dr. Paige Warren and her grad students Suzanna and Rachel and Noah Charney….and Meagan down the hall who introduced me to her own circle of friends. I could not have asked for a better situation here. Thank you to all, you are friends for life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


’Tis the season for sugar plum fairies, but I have been delighted to find the insect equivalent of those mythical figures among the specimens in the emergence trap and pitfall trap samples I’ve been sorting through the last six months.

The so-called “fairyflies” are actually ultra-tiny parasitic wasps in the family Mymaridae. They are among the very smallest of insects. Members of one genus check in at a mere 0.18 mm. As larvae, all mymarids are egg parasites of other insects, including aquatic ones in some cases. That might account for their presence in the emergence traps which were floating on the surface of water in various wetland habitats.

The most amazing feature of these diminutive hymenopterans is their wings.

Paddle-shaped with no veins, they are also fringed with long hairs. The hind wings are stalked, and this is one character used to identify them.

There are 120 species of fairyflies in North America, in twenty-eight genera. Most are well under two millimeters long. I had never seen them before I started looking at the pitfall trap samples. I initially dismissed the specimen below as something other than a mymarid because it was relatively huge for that family, about three millimeters or so.

It has been a joy to learn that the world of microscopic insects and arachnids is just as enchanting and beautiful as the macroscopic world of arthropods that are over five millimeters. Happy holidays, folks; may you, too, find happiness in small packages.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lost and Found

This morning I was in the mailroom of my building on campus, making a cup of hot cocoa, when another gentleman entered and asked if lost and found was in there. I replied that it was, the box on the windowsill behind the copier, the sign obscured by the many items already piled inside. He dutifully added his own find, then reported that there was a cockroach living among the lost articles.

Naturally, I was intrigued by the prospect of the roach, and went over to investigate, fully expecting that it had long since fled. I figured it would probably be another brown-banded roach if I saw it at all.

Imagine my shock to find an enormous example of an American cockroach, Periplaneta Americana, nonchalantly exploring the terrain of corduroy and denim.

American roaches are anything but, and some speculate that they are the punishment for our collective sin of slavery, having come over from Africa on ships with human cargo. They are at home here mostly in hot, humid situations, conveniently provided by steam heat, sewers, and similar urban niches.

After snapping a few pictures of this one, I found my mind wandering to the Spyro Gyra instrumental “Lost and Found,” from their album Love & Other Obsessions. Not a bad tune to have in your head. Meanwhile, the roach was last seen wearing a scarf, pair of gloves, and a pretty nice corduroy jacket. Someone is going to miss those.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's Raining Opportunities

The good news is that I am not at a loss for continued work, now and after the University of Massachusetts job ends its six-month run in two weeks. The bad news is that none of the new projects by themselves will keep me afloat financially. Still, I am very grateful because they are taking me in directions I have wanted to go for a long time.

Naturally, the project I am most excited about is the one I am basically sworn to secrecy about. Suffice that it involves technology. The caliber of the other individuals involved is first-rate, and I have been warmly received. I will say more when I am able, I assure you.

The other project I just learned about today. Suffice that this one involves commercial television, but is so embryonic that the producer himself cannot guarantee anything. I have been graciously welcomed there, also, and look forward to the possibilities.

Still, I am open to receiving invitations for complementary projects and/or steady work, ideally with healthcare benefits kicking in before allergy season does. Allegra is really expensive!

Best wishes to all of you for continued good health, employment, travel, laughter, and all the other things that make life truly worth living.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The "University Roach"

Once cold weather sets in, it is more difficult to find wildlife, even insects. Sometimes, though, they find you. Such was the case last week when the nymph of a brown-banded cockroach, Supella longipalpa, crossed my desk at the lab while I was eating lunch.

I have taken to calling brown-banded roaches the “university roach” because that is the only place I’ve ever seen them: Oregon State University, the University of Arizona, and now here at UMass (Amherst). I’m not sure what, if anything, this says about the academic proclivities of the species, but it is certainly more sharply dressed than our other domestic pest cockroaches.

The two-tone coloration of brown-banded cockroaches is especially obvious in the nymphs, before the wings obscure the markings on the abdomen. These are not large roaches, perhaps a little bigger than German cockroaches, but still much smaller than American roaches and other members of the Periplaneta genus.

Like the other domicilatory roaches, the brown-banded is not native to North America. Its origins remain elusive, but perhaps its homeland is somewhere in tropical Africa. Females are flightless, having short, non-functional wings, but it does not deter the mobility of the species. Brown-banded roaches are frequently transported inside of furniture, which may explain the appearance of that nymph on my desktop. Male brown-bandeds are, ironically, quick to fly when disturbed.

Watch for brown-banded roaches in warmer, drier places than other roaches. They may seek shelter behind pictures on the wall, or in appliances. This latter habit has earned them the popular nickname of “TV roach.” I suspect the one exploring my desk normally resides inside the computer tower. Doesn’t seem to affffffffect the….perforMancccce of the thing, though….

Friday, November 20, 2009

Gift Ideas

As I write this there are only thirty-four (34!) shopping days left until Christmas. I therefore consider it my obligation to inform you of a couple of wonderful gift choices perfect for the entomologists in your family.

I am pleased to recommend a brand new regional insect guide for residents of, and visitors to, the upper reaches of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as the fine folks in adjacent Canada. Insects of the North Woods, by Jeffrey Hahn, is the latest offering in the "North Woods Naturalist Series" published by Kollath+Stensaas Publishing in Duluth, Minnesota.

This little gem of 246 pages covers most of the common families of insects likely to be encountered in that region of North America. I can personally attest to the effort that goes into assuring the utmost quality of this entire series, well worth one's investment because of their user-friendly nature, lavish photography, and compact size. Since most of the species profiled also occur elsewhere in eastern North America, the geographic slant to these publications is of minimal consideration. They are a handy reference almost anywhere east of the Rockies.

Much as I hate to "toot my own horn" as they say, you might also consider picking up a copy of my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, authored by myself and naturalist extraordinaire Kenn Kaufman. Kenn really doesn't get enough credit for this book because he is modest to a fault, and won't readily admit that he wrote the sections on moths and butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, and many of the grasshoppers and crickets. Oddly, his finely-honed skills at editing text and images, and layout of plates seem to constantly take a back seat to his expertise in world bird fauna and rock guitar-playing.

The North Woods guides and Kaufman guides in general make excellent complementary gifts sure to please the naturalist who has everything (else). Please feel free to share your own favorite books, gadgets, and other bug-related products in the comment section of this post. I'll be eager to hear what has served you well in the field and your library. Happy holidays, friends.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Work, Work, Work

I do not like to make excuses for why there are long gaps between blog entries, but right now I am up to my ears in work, and my six month stint here at the University of Massachusetts is winding down.

My current priorities are to finish my tasks in the lab, complete a private project identifying bee specimens, and start packing up to move back to Arizona. Blogging is going to have to be put on the back burner for now, so please bear with me while posts are more infrequent.

Once I return to Tucson, I also aim to drive more traffic to my Sense of Misplaced blog, where I can be more creative, philosophical, and opinionated.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More Magic

One of the most magical things about the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory and Gardens in South Deerfield, Massachusetts is how so many butterflies can manage to virtually disappear before your eyes. You have to be very observant just to find some of these masters of “crypsis,” another word for camouflage.

Butterflies are generally pretty obvious and colorful when they are flying or feeding at flowers. Those at rest, wings closed over their backs, are often colored in earthtones of browns, grays, or greens on the underside, making them so inconspicuous as to be easily overlooked altogether. Even an entire cluster of individuals, like these common crows, Euploea core, dangling from a vine, can be easily dismissed as dead, drooping leaves. Native to India, crows are in the same family as our Monarch butterfly.

Some butterflies take hiding one step further by resting on the underside of leaves. This is also how butterflies shelter themselves from downpours and other inclement weather. Hanging beneath foliage in the butterfly house, this Malachite butterfly, Siproeta stelenes, easily avoided detection by visitors not accustomed to having to hunt for such beauties. The neotropical Malachite actually makes its way into the U.S., occurring in extreme southern Florida and Texas as well as Central America and northern South America.

The ultimate in true camouflage is demonstrated by yet another butterfly known as the Indian leaf, Kallima paralekta, one of several tropical Old World species known collectively as “leafwings” or “dead leaf butterflies.” Not only are the closed wings of the insect shaped like a leaf in profile, but the markings on the underside even include a “midrib,” vaguely visible on this tattered specimen.

Magic Wings also displays some other insects that defy efforts to describe the extent of their cryptic appearance. Enormous tropical walkingstick insects of several varieties are so nearly invisible as to cause one to question whether there is anything other than plants inside the cage. This close-up of one specimen confirms that this is indeed an animal rather than a vegetable, complete with a visible eye, antennae, and legs.

Walkingsticks still pale in comparison to their relatives the “walking leaf” insects of southeast Asia. Yes, the yellow object in this image is an insect, viewed from the side. These members of the genus Phyllium seem to literally be what they eat, as they are vegetarians that consume the pigments of their host plants. Not surprisingly, in the autumn when leaves are losing chlorophyll and more colorful pigments that are normally masked come to the fore, the insects get a dose of bright oranges, yellows, and reds. Voila! The insect’s built-in fashion sense doesn’t miss a beat.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Magic Wings

Saturday, November 7, dawned as a bright, sunny day, unseasonably mild for western Massachusetts. I decided it was high time I visited one of the major local attractions here, the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory & Gardens. The following day the facility was celebrating its tenth year anniversary, and it is no wonder they are still going strong.

Open year round from 9 AM until 6 PM, Magic Wings is well worth your time. Besides the free-flying butterflies in the tropical greenhouse there are also birds, reptiles, amphibians, and other insects on display both inside the greenhouse and in an exhibit area that serves as the anteroom before you enter. Everything is colorful, including this red-eyed tree frog from Latin America.

The butterflies really do steal the show, though, and I personally observed at least eighteen different species flitting around, feeding at flowers, perched on foliage, or courting each other in magical, amorous displays. This male birdwing butterfly, Ornithoptera priamus, native to Papua New Guinea, finally paused during his pursuit of the opposite sex.

Much smaller butterflies of the genus Heliconius were more camera-friendly, and no two specimens seemed to be alike, let alone the different species. This “cydno,” Heliconius cydno, seemingly a subdued, dull black in natural light, positively shimmered under a camera flash. Meanwhile, the “postman,” Heliconius melpomene, exhibits a mind-boggling diversity of color patterns such that they resemble different species. Only when courting does it become apparent that they belong together.

The morning light streaming through the glass roof definitely offers you the best opportunity to observe and photograph the butterflies, but hang around awhile longer. You can take your lunch break in the cafĂ©, or go to the Monarch Restaurant next door, then return (showing the stamp on your hand) for an afternoon encore. At dusk, you will be treated to the crepuscular flights of the enormous “owl” butterflies, Caligo eurilochus. They will likely even alight on you while you are looking for other butterflies. What a way to end your day.

I’m not earning anything by endorsing this place, I just found it a pretty enchanting place to spend a day. Where else can you hear biker dudes and women and children all making exclamations of delight over insects? There is something to be said for any enterprise that can have such an effect on people, bringing out all our best qualities in a shared experience with nature, however artificial the environment.

Learn more about Magic Wings online at

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pumpkin Bugs

This year I actually carved a jack-o’-lantern for the first time in decades. My landlady had purchased several pumpkins and then had a carving party on Saturday, October 24. Since I’m a football fan, and I’m in New England, I carved mine in the form of a Patriots helmet. It turned out pretty well, and I had fun doing it. Once we set the hollow gourds out on the porch, though, insects began flocking to the fermenting fruits. By Halloween day, a surprising variety of critters could be found outside and inside the pumpkins.

October 31 was an unseasonably balmy day here in South Deerfield, which probably had a lot to do with the buzzing insect population. Among the more interesting visitors was this little “jumping plant louse,” in the family Psyllidae. Psyllids are related to aphids, and a few can be pests in their own right. They are quite tiny, but under magnification can be quite colorful and lovely as well.

The psyllid’s kin, aphids, were also out and about, drifting on the wind and alighting wherever their feet found purchase. This is the time of year when aphids are winged, seeking the alternate host plants where they will overwinter. While some species pass the cold months as adult insects, the majority probably lie dormant in the egg stage.

Not surprisingly, flies made up the bulk of the visitors to our big orange globes. Fruit is fruit, and even if the inside of a jack-o’-lantern must seem like a domed stadium to “fruit flies,” they treated it like a bunch of overripe bananas, carrying on their courtship dances and lapping up the liquid residue. These are actually “pomace flies” or “vinegar flies” in the family Drosophilidae, and not true fruit flies (those are in the family Tephritidae and they attack fresh fruit, wreaking economic havoc on growers). The adult female pomace fly lays her eggs in the decaying fruit and the larvae that hatch feed mostly on the yeast that is carrying out the fermentation process. The maggots can really hold their liquor and quickly mature in the alcoholic mess.

Larger flies were to be found as well, including vivid metallic “green bottle” blow flies in the family Calliphoridae, and flies from the family Muscidae (house flies and kin) were chief among them. Oddly, even this parasitic fly of the family Tachinidae visited. Tachinids are, as larvae, mostly internal parasites of other insects. Some tachinids are very “host specific,” meaning they attack only a handful of host insects, often caterpillars. Other species are “generalists,” and just about any old caterpillar will do. It is essentially impossible to identify tachinids beyond the family level unless you are an expert specializing in that incredibly diverse family.

Maybe my favorite fly of the day was this pumpkin-orange Homoneura fly in the family Lauxaniidae. You can see more detailed images of these little beauties on the Bug Guide page for the genus.

I can’t think of a better way to share a pumpkin than with the insect world. While we humans admire the glowing spheres cut in familiar, humorous, or scary patterns, the insects remind us that there really is such a thing as reincarnation, if not in spirits, then in the molecule-by-molecule recycling of pumpkin flesh into fly flesh. I, for one, kind of like that idea.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Special: Ghosts and Pirates

What is more appropriate for Halloween than ghosts and pirates? We are not talking about trick-or-treat costumes, though, but spiders. Come to think of it, what is more appropriate for Halloween than spiders?! Just last week I found both kinds on an unseasonably warm night (October 21) here in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Both ghost spiders (family Anyphaenidae) and pirate spiders (family Mimetidae) prowl in search of prey. The similarity ends there, though, as they don’t resemble each other in the least, and their lifestyles are very different.

Ghost spiders are, not surprisingly, pale in color for the most part, and generally nocturnal in their habits, haunting foliage in pursuit of insects to eat. By day they hide in curled leaves that they tie together with silk.

Despite their name, ghost spiders are not very intimidating to humans. Adults reach a maximum of only a bit more than 8 millimeters. This one, a specimen of Hibana gracilis, was probably about six millimeters in body length. Big enough to take down the midge it is munching on, though. I think spiders recognize on some level the attractiveness of outdoor lighting to insects, as that is the situation I found this one in, and the pirate spider as well.

Pirate spiders are easily identified by their four eye patches and two wooden legs. But seriously, folks, the long spines on their legs help differentiate them from the cobweb spiders and sheet-web weavers that they otherwise might be mistaken for. The resemblance to other spiders is further complicated by the fact that you sometimes find pirate spiders in the snares of cobweb weavers. Their appearance there is as sinister as their name suggests.

Pirate spiders eat cobweb spiders, as well as orb weavers and other spiders. They dispatch the rightful owner of the web by biting the other spider on its legs, feeding from one after the other until the victim is totally drained. One reason for attacking the legs of its prey might be that the jaws of pirate spiders are fused at their base, not permitting the spider to open its mouthparts wide enough to bite other parts of its victims.

The specimen I found last week was Mimetus puritanus, the most common species in the eastern United States. There is a total of fourteen species in the genus in North America, however, and another ten that remain undescribed (awaiting the assignment of names by arachnologists).

BOO! Just making sure you are still paying attention. Ar-r-r-r-g, matey! Be on the lookout for ghosts and pirates in your own neighborhood.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I See Dead Spiders

I have been almost literally wading through vials of dead spiders in my lab at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) the last few weeks. My supervisors had tried to come to terms with a real arachnologist in Canada to identify the pitfall trap specimens from last year’s samples, but apparently international relations were too complicated and it fell to me to try and make heads and tails (cephalothoraxes and spinnerets?) of the many members of the order Araneae that were trapped last summer.

The chemicals and processes used in collecting, cleaning, and preserving the specimens often leaves them in less than optimal condition for identifying them later on, and the biggest challenge I’ve had has been finding intact specimens, or at least assembling all the parts scattered throughout a given vial. Legless specimens abound, as do those without abdomens.

Another problem one encounters is finding mature adult specimens. Many specimens can be determined to the family level of classification as immatures, or even spiderlings, but genera and species can be impossible to conclude without having the external genitalia to examine. The majority of specimens I find to be juveniles or “penultimate adults,” the term for spiders one molt removed from adulthood. Arg!

Still, I am learning a great deal about spider anatomy and am able to execute identifications to a respectable degree despite the obstacles. I have at my disposal several fine literature references as well as excellent online resources. Ultimately, I must rely on patiently putting the specimens through “keys,” documents in the form of couplets that direct you to other couplets and eventually take you to the name of a genus or species. When it works, it is a joyous occasion. More often than I’d like, though, the result is one of sheer frustration.

The diversity of the spider fauna that I’m finding is truly amazing. Among the more dominant families are the Linyphiidae, which includes the tiny “dwarf spiders,” subfamily Erigoninae. There seems to be no end to the number of different species, and some of them sport bizarre formations on the cephalothorax . Males of Oedothorax trilobatus sport tumor-like swellings that give the species its name. Meanwhile, some males of Walckenaeria communis can have a horn-like extension of the cephalothorax. The spiders themselves measure only about two millimeters in total body length.

At the other end of the spectrum are relative monsters like Wadotes hybridus, a member of the hacklemesh weaver family Amaurobiidae that can reach 14 millimeters at maturity. These are powerful, brutish arachnids with heavy legs and enormous chelicerae (jaws).

You can see some of the other strange and wonderful species I’m identifying and imaging by following my string of images at, which start with the most recent uploads. Live vicariously in arachnid land.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The End of Extension in Michigan?

My good friend Bug Girl just posted a very disturbing entry to her own blog. Apparently the Michigan legislature intends to abandon the state’s Cooperative Extension Service.

This is just simply embarrassing, akin to the legislation in Kansas concerning evolution and creationism. Is that the kind of reputation that Michigan wants? Of course not. Extension agents help people across the entire globe because they are literally and figuratively plugged into networks of other professionals, trading ideas and helping each other in myriad ways. No state can afford to essentially operate in a social, economic, or scientific vacuum, but that is what is going to happen if the legislators don't see the error of their ways.

It is my humble opinion that there are no more important people than extension service personnel because they serve as the public face of science, educating the masses in a variety of formal and informal ways. They also serve as mentors to young students of science and agriculture via 4-H and other programs.

I urge you to lend your voice of support to the comments calling for an end to this budget-cutting nonsense over at Bug Girl’s Blog. Together, we can stop this and help ourselves as well as Michigan residents who would be so terribly hurt by an end to the Cooperative Extension Service. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spider Season

Fall is also spider season, at least in temperate climates. I am asked about spiders much more often in autumn than at any other time of the year. Why is this so? What does it mean?

Orb-weaving spiders in particular are much more conspicuous later in the year than in the spring and summer. This is true for several reasons. The spiders are mature, and therefore larger, for one thing. Females are also competing for the best “web sites” to optimize their prey-catching opportunities. This means that some end up spinning in less-than-ideal spots, like across your door. They could conceivably be there by choice, though. Spiders are quick to learn that outdoor lighting attracts lots of insects, so your front porch might be great real estate for the arachnids.

Indeed, a few species seem to actually prefer human constructions. The “barn spider,” Araneus cavaticus, is seldom found anywhere else. The females are quite large by North American spider standards, and can be rather intimidating when they stretch their snares across the rafters and under the eaves. Ironically, the webs are rather small compared to the spiders themselves.

Females of many orb weavers spin their webs at night, remaining concealed in “retreats” in curled leaves and other shelters by day. They connect a “signal thread” to the hub of their circular snare to literally keep them in touch with the web, alerting them to the impacts of any insect victims that might become entangled during the day.

Other orb weavers sit in the hub (center) of their webs at all times, like the “cross spider,” Araneus diadematus, pictured at the top of this entry. When disturbed, the spider may shake violently in its web, perhaps startling the potential predator into abandoning its intended attack.

While female spiders are stay-at-homes, male spiders wander in search of mates, even those species normally confined to webs. Autumn is the season in which many of these nomadic suitors find there way indoors by mistake, freaking out female humans in the process. The male spouse is then recruited to dispatch the male spider. I encourage folks to consider simply ushering the spider into a container and taking it back outdoors where it can resume its romantic pursuits in a more appropriate habitat.

Mature male spiders can often be identified by their more slender bodies, longer legs, and modified “palps” or “pedipalps,” leg-like mouthparts that often resemble miniature boxing gloves.

Some spiders simply hunt on foot and don’t bother with a web. One of the more common examples of this kind of hunting spider are members of the genus Trachelas in the family Corinnidae. They are often encountered indoors at this time of year. Once considered mildly venomous to humans, they are now classified as harmless.

Wherever you find spiders, enjoy them in their roles as master weavers and pest control patrol. You can safely relocate indoor spiders with the “cup and card” trick. Simply place a cup, glass, or other container over the spider, slip an index card under both the spider and the mouth of the container, turn them over, and take them outside. The spider and your spouse will thank you for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Indoor Insects of Autumn (part 4 of 4)

This is the final installment of a four-part series addressing insects frequently seen indoors at this time of year when they seek shelter for hibernation during the colder months. This entry will introduce the “multicolored Asian lady beetle,” Harmonia axyridis.

Like the brown marmorated stink bug, the multicolored Asian lady beetle, also known as the “Halloween lady beetle” for its abundance at the end of October, is not native to North America. It was repeatedly introduced here by state, federal, and private interests to augment native lady beetles for control of aphid pests in orchards. As early as 1916 an effort was made to establish this species in California. Subsequent efforts there and elsewhere appeared to fail each time.

Finally, in 1988, viable populations were discovered near New Orleans. Whether this was the result of a planned introduction, or an accidental importation, it marked the start of something big. Today, Harmonia axyridis is found over most of the United States and adjacent southern Canada, save for the southwest U.S.

This species is not easily identifiable because it is so variable in color and pattern. Most individuals have bright red elytra (wing covers) with eighteen or nineteen black spots, but they may be orange and spotless, or even black with only a pair of red spots. There is every combination in between, too. They can thus be confused with many native species.

The overriding clue to their identification seems to be their sheer abundance. There is some circumstantial evidence that they might even be displacing native species, but probably not as much so as another non-native lady beetle, the seven-spotted (“C-7”) lady beetle, Coccinella septempunctata.

Nowhere is the abundance of Harmonia axyridis more obvious or obnoxious than when they congregate indoors while seeking snug spots in which to overwinter. Their sudden appearance usually means a flood of telephone calls from irate homeowners to the state department of agriculture and county extension agents. It is no one agency’s “fault,” though, and at most the beetles are a “nuisance pest” that can sometimes emit a foul odor or stain fabrics. They most definitely do not breed indoors or eat clothing or blankets. In fact, they subsist on fat reserves during the colder months, not feeding at all.

Larva of Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle

There are persistent reports of the insects biting people, but this does not represent an attack as much as curiosity. Insects in general investigate things through taste, smell, and touch. Nor does it mean the beetle is acting in self-defense. Lady beetles defend themselves by secreting a noxious yellow fluid from their “knee” joints in a behavior known as reflex bleeding. This liquid smells awful and can leave a stain.

Mating pair, male on top

Preventing multicolored Asian lady beetles from entering your home or office building is the easiest way to avoid problems. Replace worn weatherstripping on doors. Repair holes in widow screens, and seal other cracks and crevices. Consider vacuuming up any beetles that do make it indoors and releasing them outdoors near a woodpile or other sheltered situation away from your home.

You might also consider painting your home a different color. Evidence shows that the beetles are most attracted to pale hues such as white, gray, and yellow.

More information about these beetles can be found online through fact sheets from Ohio State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

The Art of Insect Tracking

Last Saturday night, October 3, I joined friends from Athol, Massachusetts to travel to the town of Cummington for the opening reception of an art exhibit by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. The two friends collaborate to teach tracking workshops and other field courses, but have also worked to produce the forthcoming book Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, published by Stackpole Books with an expected release date of March, 2010. The exhibit, which runs through the end of October at the Cummington Community House, 33 Main Street, features stunning images taken for the book.

Noach Charney has become so enthralled with the intricate designs produced by insects in the course of their life cycles that he intends to produce his own coffee table book that celebrates these signs and patterns as literal art. Noah has a real eye for this and is painstaking in his commitment to producing high quality images. He is not above fooling his audience, either, posing optical illusions while rendering portraits of what insects leave behind. This image of leafcutter bee “damage” is perhaps the representative picture for the entire project. Can you tell what is going on here (hint: this is not a studio shot, and only minor manipulation of the leaves was involved)?

Charley Eiseman (right) met Noah (left) years ago when they helped found the “Woodsy Club,” as Charley’s mom affectionately calls it. Together with other like-minded souls, they practiced tracking, outdoor survival skills, and other activities. The two might call themselves “slackers” and poke fun at each other’s shortcomings, but there is nothing about them that is unprofessional when it comes to scientific endeavors. Keen eyes and endless curiosity have helped them spot the most cryptic of arthropod-created objects and solve enduring mysteries of “what did that?”

Anyone who hangs out with Noah and Charley will learn what true friendship means, and will laugh a lot along the way. You can’t help but come away with an appreciation of all things insect- and spider-created, or learn the art of observation and patience, either.

This blog entry is not just to promote their book and photography skills. You have to read the wonderful story in the Boston Globe for that. I just like these guys and the fine qualities they exemplify. Do take in the exhibit if you find yourself in the vicinity of Cummington, and by all means visit their website, the Northern Naturalists to keep track of their latest activities (no pun intended).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Indoor Insects of Autumn (part 3 of 4)

This is the third installment of a four-part series addressing insects frequently seen indoors at this time of year when they seek shelter for hibernation during the colder months. This entry will introduce the “brown marmorated stink bug,” Halyomorpha halys. Special thanks to John R. Maxwell for sharing his images.

Unlike the western conifer seed bug and the boxelder bugs, the brown marmorated stink bug is not native to the North American continent. It was first detected in Allentown, Pennsylvania in September, 1998 but probably arrived at least two years earlier. The insect hails from Asia, being indigenous to China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Thus far, H. halys has amounted to a mere “nuisance pest” that appears in numbers on the exterior of homes as it seeks shelter for the winter. The adult insects fly well, and sometimes manage to creep indoors, much to the consternation of property owners. The fact that they can deploy their scent glands when under duress makes them even more unappealing.

Outdoors, during the spring and summer months, nymphs and adults feed on a variety of plants, shrubs, trees, and fruits. They sip liquid sap and fruit juices through beak-like mouthparts collectively called a rostrum. Their feeding causes mostly cosmetic damage and they have not yet attained pest status for that reason. This is not the case in their native range where they are especially problematic for soybean growers.

Unfortunately, these are non-descript bugs that are easily confused with innocuous native stink bugs like those in the genus Brochymena. Older nymphs like this one do sport distinctive spikes and spines, and black and white-banded legs. It is the aggregation behavior of the adults in the fall that seems to be their most unique and identifying characteristic.

Since its first appearance in Pennsylvania, the brown marmorated stink bug has been discovered in the following states: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia. Specimens have also been intercepted by agriculture officials in California and Florida. Should you suspect you have found this species in a state not on this list, you are urged to report your finding (backed up with specimens whenever possible) to your state department of agriculture.

As with all of the insects being profiled in this series, care should be taken to exclude the bugs from entry into structures by repairing worn weatherstripping, mending holes in window screens, and sealing other possible points of entry with silicone caulking and other such materials.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Indoor Insects of Autumn (part 2 of 4)

This is the second in a four-part series of entries addressing insects frequently seen indoors at this time of year when they seek shelter for hibernation during the colder months. This entry will introduce boxelder bugs in the genus Boisea.

At this time of year, people often encounter boxelder bugs in great numbers on trees, shrubs, or all too frequently on the exterior of their home. These insects go through simple or “incomplete” metamorphosis, and the nymphs are becoming adults just before cold temperatures set in. The winged adults are thus able to disperse to, and congregate in, sheltered niches insulated from the brutal winter weather.

There are two species of boxelder bugs in North America. East of the Rocky Mountains one finds the eastern boxelder bug, Boisea trivittata. West of the Continental Divide ranges the western boxelder bug, Boisea rubrolineata. Both species were formerly placed in the genus Leptocoris, and many older references used that name. They belong to the family Rhopalidae, collectively known as “scentless plant bugs,” owing to the usual lack of defensive scent glands like those possessed by other true bugs such as leaf-footed bugs (Coreidae) and stink bugs (Pentatomidae).

The bold red and gray color pattern of boxelder bugs suggests that they must have some form of defense against predators that they are advertising through those bright aposematic colors. Indeed, the eastern boxelder bug is known to produce compounds known as monoterpene hydrocarbons that have been shown to deter predation by green anole lizards (source at PubMed).

Boxelder bugs mostly constitute a cosmetic nuisance to homeowners, and they can be easily excluded from the interior of a residence. Make sure that the weatherstripping on doors reaches the floor, and mend any holes in the window screens. Do be careful of bringing the bugs in accidentally, as the stack of firewood out back makes a convenient cozy shelter for the hibernating masses, too.

Come next spring the boxelder bugs will disperse again to their favorite host plants. Despite their large numbers, they cause remarkably little damage as they feed on the seeds of boxelder, maple, and other trees. So, marvel at this spectacle of abundance and be tolerant. Maybe your neighbors will learn from your example as well.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Indoor Insects of Autumn (part 1 of 4)

This is the first in a four-part series of entries addressing insects frequently seen indoors at this time of year when they seek shelter for hibernation during the colder months. This entry will introduce the “western conifer seed bug,” Leptoglossus occidentalis.

Western conifer seed bugs, despite their common name, now occur over the entire northern half of the United States and adjacent southern Canada. They were initially a truly western species, but have since spread eastward. They were first recorded in Connecticut in 1985, for example.

These insects, members of the “leaf-footed bug” family Coreidae, are frequently mistaken for “kissing bugs,” blood-feeding assassin bugs in the genus Triatoma in the family Reduviidae. Conifer seed bugs are not the least bit dangerous, however, feeding on the seeds and developing cones of pines and other conifers. The long hind legs of these insects, with the slightly flared “bell-bottoms” appearance of their “ankles,” are a good field mark to look for in trying to identify these true bugs.

The western conifer seed bug is a fairly large, conspicuous insect roughly twenty millimeters long, and it flies with a loud, droning sound that makes it intimidating and unwelcome as an indoor guest. Furthermore, they are equipped with a pair of scent glands on the underside of the thorax. The bugs don’t hesitate to deploy their defense when molested, emitting a permeating pungent odor that deters all but the most determined predators.

Leaf-footed bugs are not without their enemies, though, chief among them being tachinid flies in the genus Trichopoda. The female fly lays at least one white, dome-shaped egg atop its host where it cannot be easily wiped off. The egg is in fact firmly adhered to the bug’s exoskeleton. Adult insects are doomed when the fly larva hatches and bores into its host’s body where it lives as an internal parasite. Immature bugs (nymphs) may occasionally escape the fly’s assault if they molt the exoskeleton before the egg hatches, though the bugs cannot molt at will, only when growth demands it.

Human beings can best deal with the western conifer seed bug by excluding them from their homes. This means repairing worn weatherstripping on doors, fixing holes in window screens, and blocking off other openings where the insects might enter, such as where plumbing and electrical conduits enter or exit the residence. Should one of the bugs still make an appearance, simply usher it gently into a container and take it outdoors. Normally, these bugs hibernate in snug, natural places such as under bark on logs, in woodpiles, rodent nests, and similar niches.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ambush Bugs

Goldenrod has been flowering for several weeks now here in western Massachusetts, as it has been over most of North America. The blooms attract an incredible number of bees, wasps, flies, moths, and butterflies that come for the nectar, but one other insect stakes out goldenrod to make a meal of those other visitors.

Ambush bugs, once placed in their own family Phymatidae, are squat, diamond-shaped insects now considered members of the Reduviidae, collectively known as “assassin bugs.” Fortunately, the only thing ambush bugs assassinate is other insects.

Colored in shades of yellow or cream with darker markings, ambush bugs are well-concealed among the buds and blossoms of a variety of flora. Often the only indication of an ambush bug’s presence is its prey: another insect posed motionless in an awkward position among the petals of a flower.

Ambush bugs seize their prey with amazing speed and strength. The entire adult insect is only about ten millimeters in length, but what they lack in size they make up for in muscle power. Their front legs are “raptorial,” heavily modified like a praying mantis for grabbing and holding a victim. The femur is heavy and almost club-like, while the tibia is blade-like. The two leg segments fold against each other like a jack-knife against its handle.

The attack is so forceful as to be an audible “snap.” Sometimes the bug literally bites off more than it can chew. I once saw an ambush bug attack a hovering leafcutter bee. The startled, retreating bee literally yanked its attacker off the flower and the bug was forced to abandon its effort and fly off to another flower to try its luck again.

While the bug’s grip is so strong that it can often subdue a victim with only one front leg, it is the bug’s bite that ultimately dooms its prey. Beak-like mouthparts deliver saliva containing paralytic compounds and enzymes that pre-digest the meal from the inside out. The ambush bug then sucks up the liquefied contents, leaving the prey insect as an empty exoskeleton.

Female ambush bugs are larger and heavier than the males, and able to snatch larger prey items. This fact has not been lost on the smaller sex, and males will ride piggy-back atop females, sharing in the female’s successful kills. Such couples may or may not end up as a mating pair, and given the male gender’s freeloading tendencies, it seems a wonder they reproduce at all.

It is not just another ambush bug that might share in the spoils, though. Tiny flies of the family Machiidae will congregate like vultures at the scene of the crime, lapping up any tasty liquids oozing from the deceased.

Our most common and widespread North American ambush bugs are in the genus Phymata, of which there are at least seventeen species. Look (carefully) on almost any flower at this time of year and you may be surprised to find one of them lurking there.