Monday, April 26, 2010

Community Day

The Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute opens its gates to the public on the fourth Saturday of every month (excluding December). This past Saturday I had the chance to participate in the April event, as a guest and helper.

SASI is located in Tucson Mountain Park, a scenic enclave located, ironically, west of the city of Tucson. It shares the park with Old Tucson Studios and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, all of which are, sadly, inaccessible by public transportation. An “unimproved” dirt road leads to the headquarters. The facilities include a classroom, library, laboratory, and both live and pinned specimens.

The all-day activities of Community Day begin with a morning nature walk on some of SASI’s 350 acres. Our walk turned up a few insects along with some wildflowers and blooming cacti. A cactus bee of the genus Diadasia, and a tiny bee fly in the genus Neacreotrichus were among the nice finds.

At 11:00 AM we were treated to an indoor presentation. Jim Verrier is the Director of the nursery for Desert Survivors, a non-profit that helps employ the disabled while furnishing mostly native plants for landscaping. Jim talked about host plants for butterflies and moths in the Tucson area.

We all broke for lunch at noon, treated to fresh tacos, beans, and garnishes prepared by a friend of SASI.

The afternoon brought more people in, with lots of children in tow. The live arthropod presentations in the classroom are always a big hit, and this day was no exception. John Rhodes had his menagerie back on exhibit, allowing the kids to handle the more “user-friendly” species.

The last program was another hands-on activity, where the boys and girls created their own mini eco-sphere, complete with Daphnia or ostracods, paired with algae suspended in water. The children got to take home their tiny aquatic world when they left. I do wonder how many got home and told the other parent “Look, I’ve got algae and an ostrich!”

John showed an incredible degree of patience with the kids, but it seemed like a long day from my perspective. Still, I’m looking forward to the next Community Day, on May 20, 2010.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A "SASI" Organization

Last Monday, April 19, I was asked to help at an educational event presented by a local organization known as the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI for short). Emily Francis, John Rhodes, Barb Skye, and myself entertained four busloads of third and fourth graders from the Hopi Elementary School in Scottsdale, Arizona. We all convened at a ramada (shelter) in Reid Park near the center of Tucson.

John Rhodes (pictured above), a retired teacher, furnished many live insects, spiders, scorpions, and other invertebrates from his personal collection. He has some of the healthiest, most magnificent arachnids and insects I have ever seen in captivity, like the bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus), vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus), and cactus longhorn beetle (Moneilema gigas) pictured below.

SASI was founded in 1986 as a non-profit organization by Steve Prchal. Its headquarters is located within Pima County’s Tucson Mountain Park, just west of Tucson. The facilities, which mostly serve researchers, include a pinned collection, library, live specimens for educational outreach programs, and 350 acres of classic Sonoran Desert landscape.

The program for which SASI is best known is the annual Invertebrates in Education and Conservation Conference, held in Rio Rico, Arizona at the end of July, beginning of August. This meeting, formerly known as the Invertebrates in Captivity Conference (informally as “Bugs in Bondage”), attracts keepers and managers from live invertebrate exhibits in zoos and butterfly houses all over the world. A second conference, Medical Entomology Today, will have its debut in January, 2011 in Tucson.

Back to the Hopi Elementary event. A total of 140 children and adults enjoyed the many cool critters displayed, and hands-on activities, as well as a pizza dinner. This was the last stop on a one-day, whirlwind tour that included Biosphere II and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I was amazed the kids had any energy left. The adults did a most outstanding job of herding the students, who were back on the buses before we could blink. Many thanks to all involved for making the ninety minutes go off without a hitch.

Perhaps you would like to learn more about SASI? Please visit them at, and also at their “fan page” on Facebook. You can also direct questions here if you like.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Underwing Moths

I am going to “cheat” a little here by offering a link to an article in lieu of a blog entry. The Missouri Conservationist magazine published a shortened version of an article on underwing moths that they paid me for a few years ago. Changes in editorial staff and the format of their publication were the reasons for the delay. I am delighted to say that the new Managing Editor, Nichole LeClair Terrill, has been a joy to work with. I am looking forward to contributing more articles in the future. I would also like to thank photographer Donna Brunet for providing such a fantastic image to illustrate this current piece.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bee Flies

The title above is not a noun and a verb, but the common name for the family Bombyliidae. Bee flies get that name from their obvious resemblance to bees, but it is a diverse family and not all of them are covered in fuzzy hairs or iridescent scales. Their life histories are likewise variable, and for most species are unknown. At least 800 species occur in North America north of Mexico. More await naming and description by scientists.

Spring is a great season to see bee flies. Look for them in open areas on sunny days, or even sunny spots in wooded areas. Many species, like the “greater bee fly,” Bombylius major, shown above, hover so perfectly as to appear to be levitating. Male bee flies in particular exhibit this behavior, perhaps defending small territories or displaying for females. You might easily hear one of these flies before you see it.

Many bee flies have elongated mouthparts, causing some people to fear them as blood-suckers. The proboscis is for probing flowers for nectar, though, and the flies are totally harmless to people and pets. Bee flies are probably mostly “flower visitors” rather than pollinators.

The larval stages of bee flies are definitely not harmless to other insects, and this makes them beneficial allies in the war against pests. At least some members of the genus Geron, shown above on an aster in western Massachusetts, are parasites of the caterpillars and/or pupae of bagworm moths in the family Psychidae. Bombylius major, a widespread species illustrated near the top of this article, is somewhat less helpful. Its offspring are parasitic in the nests of solitary bees that nest in the soil. This and related species are known as “bombers” because the female will hover over the entrance to a bee’s burrow and lob eggs into it with a flick of her abdomen. The larvae that hatch then seek out the host bee’s larvae, becoming external parasites upon them.

Members of the genus Villa, like the unidentified specimen from Arizona pictured here, are villains only to caterpillars of butterflies and moths, again functioning as parasites in the flies’ larval stages.

Larvae of Hemipenthes are hyper-parasites. That is to say they are “parasites of parasites.” They live as parasites of the larvae of ichneumon wasps, tachinid flies and other insects that are themselves parasites of caterpillars of butterflies and moths. How bizarre is that? I photographed this Hemipenthes eumenes (below) a little over a week ago here in Arizona.

Try looking for bee flies yourself next time you are out and about. You might also surf the ‘net to get a feel for what they look like. Start by browsing the images for a great overview of the North American fauna. See more stunning images from all over the world at this Flickr search. You’ll be amazed by the beauty of these delicate insects.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Remember the “Carpet Cocoon” story I did back in March, and the one on the “Carpet Caterpillar,” too? Well, the story has come full circle now.

Sometime last night, an adult moth emerged from the pupa that the caterpillar formed in the yogurt cup I had it in. I remember thinking that I needed to put a paper towel or tissue around the inside of the smooth cup so the moth could climb up and fully expand its wings for a successful molt. Naturally, I had the lid off the cup, covering a small, live beetle on my drafting table last night….So, this is what I found this morning:

An empty cup, with a now empty pupal case (and caterpillar head capsule at the left). No moth to be seen anywhere. Terrific. I looked high and low, and finally, by sheer luck, discovered the surprisingly large, perfectly healthy moth tucked neatly in the door jamb of the front door, at about ankle level. It had managed to eclose (the scientific term for emerging as an adult insect from a pupa) perfectly, in the most imperfect circumstance, with no further intervention from me. Astounding.

The comments I received on my initial post about the caterpillar were mostly directed to my assertion that the moth was nothing much to behold. I only had images from to go by, and I was not impressed. Suffice it to say that seeing the living creature has changed my opinion. It seems to have actually transformed the carpet fibers into the shimmering scales on its wings.

I had errands to run today and was in and out of my apartment frequently. On the last, late afternoon return home, the moth flew out the door. Ah, freedom! Well-deserved, too, I might add.