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 MagicWings.com.

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.