Friday, January 29, 2016

The Stable Fly

Of all the biting flies we have in North America, one of the most annoying has to be the Stable Fly, Stomoxys calcitrans. They are especially abundant around farms, ranches, zoos, and other places where large mammals are kept. Unfortunately, they will also bite people when livestock is not close at hand.

Like any notorious villain worth their salt, the Stable Fly has it aliases: "beach fly," "dog fly," and "lawn-mower fly" among them. The insect has also fled local jurisdiction. It is apparently native to Eurasia and Africa, with speculation that it probably came to the New World in colonial times, maybe in ship's ballast.

The Stable Fly is easily dismissed as a House Fly under cursory examination. Both flies are in the family Muscidae; and both are about the same size, the Stable Fly measuring 5-7 millimeters. Each species is mostly gray, with black "pinstripes" down the back of the thorax. The Stable Fly differs mostly in having a slender, black, slightly curved beak tucked under its "chin."

Proboscis (painfully) deployed!

While it is only the female mosquito, black fly, deer fly, and horse fly that sucks blood, both genders of the Stable Fly can bite. This is not a painless event, either. An immediate, sharp sensation occurs when the fly plunges its piercing mouthparts into your skin. Shoo it away and it returns instantly, and repeatedly. This persistence is perhaps the main source of our aggravation.

Commencing feeding
Almost full!

The adult fly is only one quarter of the life history of the species of course, with eggs, larvae, and pupae making up the other three stages in its metamorphosis. The female fly deposits her eggs singly, or in clusters of 25-30, in wet, decaying fibrous organic matter. Typical breeding material includes horse manure, silage, rotting hay, grass clippings, and partially composted livestock bedding.

Female full of eggs

The eggs hatch in one to fourteen days. The maggots that emerge take anywhere from 11-30 days on average to mature. The interval is largely determined by temperature, humidity, and food quality and quantity. The hotter and more humid the substrate, the faster the maggots develop. The maggot molts twice after hatching, and may be up to twelve millimeters in length by the time it enters the pupal stage.

The pupa represents the larva's third molt, the shed exoskeleton of which forms a hard, oval, dark brown "capsule" around the pupa itself. The pupal stage typically lasts six to twenty days. The adult fly then bursts out of its capsule by more or less inflating the front of its head.

Stable Flies will also sip flower nectar

The determination of Stable Flies in their feeding behavior naturally induces stress in its victims, and this can take a toll on livestock. A mere twenty flies on a cow can result in decreased milk production. Mild anemia and weight loss can also be a result of high numbers of feeding Stable Flies.

Were it such that general malaise was the only negative effect of Stable Fly populations, it would possibly be tolerable. Unfortunately, Stomoxys calictrans can also carry a variety of diseases. Most of these are of limited effect in the U.S., thankfully, but they cannot be dismissed entirely. Here, the fly can transmit anthrax, which affects livestock, pets, and people. Anthrax exhibits a variety of symptoms, the worst of which include lesions of the lungs or brain.

The next time you visit a local farm, ranch, or zoo, you might want to consider applying that DEET-based insect repellent to help fend-off attacks of Stable Flies. It will make your experience much more enjoyable if it is bite-free.

Sources: Cumming, Jeffrey M. 2006. "Diptera Associated With Livestock Dung," North American Dipterists Society.
Newberry, J. 2003. "Stomoxys calcitrans" (online), Animal Diversity Web.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

That Internet "Killer Bug" Hoax

I could write blog posts about internet hoaxes from here until the end of time. The latest is a "killer bug" that you should not kill with your bare hands because it spreads a lethal virus that also disfigures your skin. What a crock! Thanks to Hoax-Slayer we have the straight scoop.

Well, I can tell you about the insect pictured. Truth may be stranger than fiction in this case. Males of giant water bugs in the genera Belostoma and Abedus care for the eggs of their mates by carrying them on their backs. That's right, these giant water bugs, far from being people-killers, are the poster children for what a caring father looks like.

Male Abedus sp. giant water bug with eggs

The female giant water bug adheres her eggs to the back of the male, and he then guards them. He keeps the ova free of fungus, and well-aerated.

Ok, so what about the horror of that human hand? According to Hoax-Slayer, it is the work of a make-up artist, wrought of putty rather than some horrid disease. The sponge-like texture and pattern simply resembles the hatched eggs on the back of a male giant water bug.

Similar hoaxes have used photo-editing techniques to merge lotus pods or the mouths of lampreys with human body parts, the better to gross-out viewers.

According to an article on, yet another factor comes into play. The meme may be targeting people with "trypophobia," a supposed fear of holes or fear of irregular patterns of holes. No such phobia is documented in scientific literature, however. So, apparently this hoax is a triple-header: fear of insects, fear of disease, and fear of holes, all wrapped up in one whopper of a tale.

There is a slight grain of truth to this over-dramatized viral meme, though. Giant water bugs are predators of other aquatic organisms, and they deliver a venomous bite to paralyze their prey. The venom contains enzymes that aid in extraoral digestion. That is, the saliva begins breaking down tissues of the prey so that it can be withdrawn through the insect's beak and into its digestive system. The bugs will bite in self-defense, too, so handling them should be discouraged for that reason.

Ah, if only truthful information spread as quickly and effectively as fear-inspiring hoaxes like this. Please do your part by investigating the validity of a given meme before sharing it....or share it with a bold disclaimer. Thank you.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What's in Your Home?

A recent study revealing the surprising diversity of invertebrates in the average American home has been publicized in the last week through articles in a plethora of magazines, newspapers, and online outlets. Among them are The Atlantic, Wired, the News & Observer, Entomology Today, even Science Knocks on YouTube. The question for you, dear reader, is "what's in your home?"

Gall midges like this one (family Cecidomyiidae) are apparently among the most common indoor insects

The actual study, if you want to read it, was published in the journal Peer J, under the title "Arthropods of the great indoors: characterizing diversity inside urban and suburban homes". Matthew A. Bertone, Misha Leong, Keith M. Bayless, Tara L.F. Malow, Robert R. Dunn, and Michelle D. Trautwein are the authors. They did a systematic but gentle job of capturing specimens in 50 homes in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. We should also applaud the homeowners who volunteered for the study.

I think I would be highly embarrassed to have anyone see the condition of my own home, though I do proudly assert that I am not a lousy housekeeper, I am promoting biodiversity! In fact, I have kept track of the arthropods in our Colorado Springs townhouse the last four years, and though I haven't even emptied the light fixtures to see what bugs have died there, or otherwise done a thorough examination, I have found at least 28 species of arthropods.

That total is apparently low on the spectrum revealed by Bertone and his colleagues, who found 32-211 "morphospecies" per home. A morphospecies is a specimen representative of something that is easily differentiated from other organisms, but not identifiable to a true species without much closer examination. Now I really am sheepish. I'll have to look harder.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug from Oregon

Winter is actually a great time for indoor bug-hunting because you have species that are ever-present, but also those that have made their way indoors for the winter, like Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles, Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs, and Western Conifer Seed Bugs. That firewood you brought in might spawn some longhorned beetles and other wood-boring insects, too.

It is encouraging, but not surprising, that the overwhelming majority of species collected in the study are not the pest species you might expect, but at most "nuisance" insects and spiders that pose no threat to people, pets, or property. This is the message that needs to reach the masses: We can coexist. Indeed, we already are.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Zika Virus

The Zika virus, transmitted by mosquitoes, has captured headlines recently and set off something of a panic. This is technically not a "new" virus, as it was first discovered in the course of researching yellow fever in Africa in 1947. A rhesus monkey, caged near the Zika Forest in Uganda, contracted a fever of unknown origin, later (1952) determined to be caused by what we now call the Zika virus.

Aedes aegypti, one vector of Zika virus

The first human case occurred in Nigeria in 1954. It has remained rare and largely innocuous throughout its distribution in Africa and southeast Asia, until 2007 when an epidemic erupted on Yap Island in Micronesia. Subsequent epidemics in the Polynesia, Easter Island, the Cook Islands, and New Caledonia increased concern, but nothing like events in the last two months.

Two concerns have cropped up that have infectious disease specialists alarmed: Zika has jumped the Pacific Ocean and is now found in many countries in South America, Central America, and a few Caribbean nations. It has therefore been classified as a pandemic; there is also evidence the virus may be linked to birth defects, specifically microcephaly. There is also the possibility that the virus can, rarely, trigger Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a type of autoimmune disease.

What we know for certain is that the virus is not contagious. It cannot be spread from one person to another through casual contact. It is transmitted by mosquitoes in the genus Aedes, and possibly by sexual intercourse. Most people who contract the virus exhibit symptoms typical of the flu, and recover quickly.

Cases of the Zika virus in the U.S. are known from Florida, Illinois, Texas, and Hawaii. All victims had returned from travel overseas to countries known to harbor Zika.

This chain of events prompted the Centers for Disease Control to issue a Level 2 Travel Alert for pregnant women on January 15, 2016. Recommendations are that pregnant women avoid traveling to countries where the Zika virus is known to exist. This includes Puerto Rico.

An explosion of 3,500 microcephaly cases in Brazil between October, 2015 and January, 2016 is certainly cause for alarm; and it is at least suspicious that this coincides with the recent infiltration of Zika from the Old World.

Whether mosquito populations in the Gulf Coast states of the U.S. will become carriers of Zika is open to speculation, but considering the other illnesses vectored by mosquitoes, it is always an excellent idea to practice preventive measures such as wearing pants, long sleeves, and hats when outdoors. Repellents with DEET as the active ingredient can be applied per instructions (follow them to the letter). Emptying reservoirs and containers that trap rainwater is also crucial, as these are breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Sources: Etymologia: Zika virus. Emerg Infect Dis [Internet]. 2014 Jun [date cited].
"Zika Virus," Wikipedia

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"New" Insight Into Behavior of Some Cuckoo Wasps (Chrysididae)

There is always something new to learn. That is the promise of entomology, and it is validated almost daily. Just last week (January 11) I came across this amazing image of Omalus puncticollis by Emily Hobson on my Facebook newsfeed. Since I know that many species of cuckoo wasps feed on the "honeydew" secreted as a sugary, liquid waste product by aphids and related true bugs, I suspected that the wasp in this photo was stimulating the little bug into producing some honeydew.

Female cuckoo wasps do not have stingers, so I knew that this was not a case of the wasp stinging a victim to then either consume herself or take back to a nest.....or so I thought. Cuckoo wasps are parasites of other kinds of wasps, and it turns out that this is what the wasp was up to, but indirectly.

One of the comments on the image revealed the extraordinary truth:

"This is really interesting. The species is probably Omalus violaceus, and the pic shows a behaviour, what is not formally described until now. The female Chrysididae wasp lays its egg into the Aphid. When a Crabonidae wasp (e.g. Pemphredon) takes the aphid as prey and carries it into its nest, then the chrysidid larva will appear earlier and develop in the nest instead of the larva of the crabronid wasp. Until now, many wasp researchers still think that the Chrysididae infect the host nest directly, which is not true. This behaviour is observed or suspected for Omalus and related genera, and for Holopyga." - Christian Schmid-Egger

So, the chrysidid wasp larva is a "cleptoparasite" that eats the food provided by the host wasp for its offspring. It literally steals from the mouths of the host larva, starving it to death.

These images were taken in Europe, but we have related species in North America, including a few that have immigrated from overseas as a result of accidental introductions on global commerce. I wrote about one such species, Pseudomalus auratus, in a previous blog post.

The comment thread from the Facebook "Entomology" group post reveals this might be the first photographic documentation of this behavior in this particular species, as noted by Alexander Berg, who also gives references:

"Actually it is described, for Omalus by Winterhagen P (2015), Holopyga by Veenendaal R (2012), and we also discuss it in Paukkunen et al 2015 (doi: zookeys.548.6164) for Pseudomalus (something Veenendaal has also postulated)....I don't think anyone doubts it occurs in all Pseudomalus, Omalus and Holopyga...."

Science and social media is becoming a marriage made in heaven, not only for informing the general public, but for communication between scientists, too. I am left now to wonder how much else I think I know, that I really don't know. In any event, you'll know when I know.

Special thanks to Emily Hobson for sharing her images, and for Christian Schmid-Egger for permission to use his quote here.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

The wildlife refuge in the news right now is Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote southeast Oregon. I just wrote a post about the armed occupation taking place there over on my Sense of Misplaced blog. All our national wildlife refuges belong to all U.S. citizens, though, and one of my new favorites is Bosque del Apache NWR in central New Mexico.

Sandhill Cranes from a previous visit

After the conclusion of our participation in the dragonfly blitz near Silver City, Heidi and I took a leisurely two-day drive back home, passing through the refuge on the way. We hoped we would see some migrating birds, as well as more dragonfly and damselfly species. Birds were rather scarce compared to late in fall when waterfowl and huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes make the refuge a big draw for birders. We did manage a few nice insects, though.

Say's Phoebe, a common songbird here

There is a $5.00 entrance fee for the refuge, but an annual pass is only $15.00, both obtainable from the visitor center. The headquarters is a good place to start anyway, as they have feeders for both songbirds and hummingbirds, restrooms, and one of the best nature-themed gift shops I have seen anywhere.

Twin-spotted Spiny Lizard, Sceloporus bimaculosus, guarding the restroom at headquarters

One of the most popular stops on the refuge is a boardwalk around part of the marsh that is nearly always flooded. At the end of the boardwalk a trail takes you into dune habitat with a variety of desert shrubs and wildflowers. There, I found Hayden's Grasshopper, Derotmema haydeni, a very common species of band-winged grasshopper with red or yellow hind wings that it flashes briefly during short flights after it is startled. Otherwise, this small insect is so cryptic as to be nearly invisible on the sand.

Hayden's Grasshopper

Also encountered on the dunes was a female sand wasp, possibly Bembix sayi, hard at work on her nest burrow. She disappeared so quickly into her tunnel that I only got one shot of her.

Sand wasp

Butterflies are also in abundance on the refuge, and Heidi was lucky enough to spot this pair of Reakirt's Blues, Hemiargus isola, in copula on a low-growing shrub.

Leaving the dunes and returning down the boardwalk back to the car, we finally found some dragonflies other than the abundant Variegated Meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum. Heidi spotted a specimen of the White-belted Ringtail, Erpetogomphus compositus, perched on a cattail blade overhanging the water. The insect's distance and angle from the boardwalk, coupled with breezy conditions, made it a real challenge to get any pictures.

White-belted Ringtail

Closer at hand we found a male Eastern Amberwing, Perithemis tenera, flitting and perching among the cattails. This was a species we saw on the dragonfly blitz, but not as clearly as here. I was surprised they were so uncommon.

male Eastern Amberwing

As territorial as any male dragonfly are males of the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus. These are the famed mimics of the Monarch, but with a little practice one can easily distinguish them. The submarginal semi-circle line across the hind wing is one obvious clue. The male Viceroy also patrols a territory and perches frequently, something the larger Monarch does not do, at least with any dependability.

Viceroy butterfly

A trail parallels the road on the side of the marsh opposite the boardwalk, and it is always worth a look-see. This time I was rewarded with observations of a Campestral Grasshopper, Spharagemon campestris. This is a fairly large band-winged grasshopper with yellow hindwings exposed in flight, and a bright orange tibia on each hind leg.

Campestral Grasshopper

Pushing onward around the southern loop road, heading back north now, I spotted an enormous female Black & Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia, from the car. These arachnids can be surprisingly cryptic in the right circumstances, but this one was in bright sunlight with blue sky behind her from my vantage point in our Saturn. I got out to get this close-up.

One dragonfly that had so far eluded us was the Roseate Skimmer, Orthemis ferruginea, mature males of which are essentially hot pink in color. We finally found a small population in a muddy, quickly shrinking wetland off the side of the road.

Male Roseate Skimmer

It is always amazing to me how an old, tattered dragonfly can still be basically unimpaired, and able to fly as swiftly as its totally intact brethren.

The wetlands were also hosting a handful of Killdeer plovers, and a single Spotted Sandpiper.

Spotted Sandpiper in winter plumage

Also present in the neighborhood was a spreadwing damselfly, Lestes sp., which I cannot identify beyond genus. Maybe one of my followers here can tell us.

Farther up the road we encountered a female Roseate Skimmer that landed in a cottonwood tree. They look hardly anything like the males, and have a distinct flare near the tip of the abdomen.

female Roseate Skimmer

I always look forward to finding patches of blooming milkweed (Asclepias spp.) in this part of the country. The flowers are a magnet for all manner of insects, especially butterflies, bees, and wasps. Heidi is understandably hoping for minimal milkweed because she knows I am going to be at each little oasis for a l-o-o-o-ng time.

Female scoliid wasp, Campsomeris sp.

I tried to be efficient, but there was so much diversity: tarantula hawks (Pepsis sp.), a nice thread-waisted wasp (Sphex ashmeadi), weevil wasps (Cerceris sp.), and scoliid wasps (Campsomeris sp. and Triscolia ardens), plus Bordered Patch butterflies (Chlosyne lacinia).

Bordered Patch butterflies

Alas, time had come to get back on the road home, and storm clouds were rolling in anyway, as we expected they would by mid-afternoon. A convention of swallows bid us farewell from their perches in the middle of yet another pond.

Bosque del Apache is highly managed, as most refuges are, to accommodate migrating waterfowl. Consequently, there may be little water except during late fall, winter, and early spring. Bear that in mind if you are looking for aquatic life, and time your visit accordingly.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Year 2015 in Review

Gratitude is something I need to be expressing more often, so let me start there. It was an unusual and sometimes trial-filled year, but there is plenty I am grateful for. Much thanks to all who clicked the "donate" button, it is always a joyful surprise when I get a notification. Thank you also to BioQuip Products for continuing to sponsor this blog with their advertising here. Thanks, Google Adsense, for the twice-yearly supplemental revenue. Thank you to all the fellow bloggers who see fit to include my blog in their own "blog roll." I very much appreciate the respect, and your willingness to voluntarily direct traffic my way. Last, but certainly not least, thank you, dear readers, for continuing to "follow" me, and for your patience between posts.

The start of the year found me in Portland, Oregon, planning the celebration of life in the wake of my mother's passing in December, 2014. Thankfully, Heidi came out and helped me finish packing up mom's apartment, and offering moral support. My best friend from high school, Carl Robertson, also helped immensely. His sense of humor is priceless, like his devotion to his family and friends.

By March, I was helping review signage for exhibits at the newly-opened Missoula Insectarium in Montana, USA. My friends Jen and Glenn Marangelo have worked incredibly long and hard to see this facility come to fruition, and they still have a long road ahead to build the butterfly house of their dreams. Please support them in any way you can.

I was also approached by Tender Corporation to contribute blog posts to the Insectlopedia website. This has been challenging but rewarding, and my editors, Emily Snayd and Kristin Hathaway, have been an absolute joy to work with. It looks like we will have another go at it in 2016.

This year I started remembering to take videos of insect and spider behavior, too, and this is a trend that I expect will continue as opportunities present themselves. I am going to need a bigger computer, though, as movie files take a lot of megabytes!

Another goal this year was to introduce more generic posts addressing how entomologists and the public can interact more constructively; and clarifying general principles such as the myth of "good" bugs and "bad" bugs. These posts began in June, 2015, and I hope to continue them.

Year 2015 also saw more discoveries of "new" local insect species. For the second year in a row I scored a state record for a dragonfly species. This year it was a Red Rock Skimmer at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. I also collected a foreign rove beetle that turned out to be a state record. Most astoundingly, I documented in photos and videos the arrival of the Pipe Organ Mud Dauber in Colorado. At least I am pretty sure it is new to the state. I have more research to do to clarify that finding.

Perhaps my biggest failure of the year was our effort to document the mass emergence of Brood IV periodical cicadas. Heavy rains prior to our visit to northeast Kansas and adjacent Missouri delayed the spectacle until a week after we returned home. At least we got to see Heidi's parents, and visit our dear friend Shelly Cox.

In June I began working two days each week at Songbird Supplies, LLC, a wonderful store inside of Summerland Gardens nursery. One of the many benefits of this employment opportunity was the chance to observe birds, insects, and spiders on the property. By December, I had documented nearly 260 species of animals, from earthworms to Homo sapiens. Many thanks to Julie McIntyre for her tolerance of wasps and other insects on the property.

The most difficult challenge I faced this year concerning this blog was the discovery that my work had been copied wholesale by someone else. Text and images were being cloned without my authorization. So began my adventures with Google and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). One of my friends from Facebook, a lawyer, volunteered to write the takedown notices, one for each blog post! I did not realize the full extent of the work involved until a second incident, for which I wrote my own takedown notices. The DMCA is clearly in need of great modification, and vastly better enforcement. The continuing devaluation of web content created by writers and photographers should be considered intolerable, but short of a "digital union" of content providers, I am unsure that the tide can be turned. I fully expect to have to repeat this process a number of times in coming years.

I was privileged to go on several wonderful adventures this year, including a tarantula hunt, a grasshopper hunt, National Moth Week events, and a dragonfly and damselfly hunt. There is nothing better than enjoying one's interests with others of like mind. Many thanks to all who made these adventures possible and memorable!

One of my blog-writing resolutions for the new year is to be more proactive in responding to news stories related to entomology, like the recent report on Chagas disease in the U.S. I welcome suggestions from my readers at all times concerning stories they would like for me to address. Meanwhile, I will do my best to be more in touch with current events.

Thank you again for your continued support. May 2016 be generous to you, your family, and friends. Cheers to more entomological excitement for all of us!