Friday, July 22, 2016

National Moth Week, 2016: What's at Your Blacklight?

Today, Friday, July 22, kicks off the fourth annual National Moth Week, which runs through Sunday, July 31. I highly recommend participating, ideally in the formal sense of registering an "event" at their website. It can be public or private, as elaborate or as simple as you want to make it. Simply turning on your porch light this week and recording in images what comes flying in will add to our collective scientific knowledge while delighting you and your family.

A "prominent moth," Gluphisia sp.

Tonight I will be at the Fountain Creek Nature Center in Security/Widefield, Colorado, where the Mile High Bug Club and the nature center staff will be hosting an after dark celebration of moths. We are fortunate to have several members who have invested in UV tubes, mercury vapor lights, and other set-ups designed to draw nocturnal Lepidoptera and other insects. There should be at least two or three stations in different habitats.

Our simple light set-up

Meanwhile, my wife and I have a very low-tech apparatus consisting of a sheet, an 18-inch, 15 watt "party-style" blacklight, and a 4.5 watt, 120 volt 45 LED "work light." Most nights, weather permitting, we erect this in the backyard, all 12 x 10 square feet of it, fenced in as we are in a relatively urban Colorado Springs neighborhood. We should be attracting next to nothing except sideways glances from the neighbors. I have created a Flickr album, "Backyard Blacklighting, June, 2016," and will make subsequent albums for July, August, and September, too, documenting in images the diversity of insect life we see.

Ponderosa Pine Seedworm Moth

Blacklights produce light at the ultraviolet end of the spectrum, including wavelengths invisible to the human eye but easily detected by the insect eye. It is not recommended that one look directly at a blacklight, as UV rays are known to damage your eyes. Wearing white to a moth night event is also a bad idea as you will become a moving reflector and moths and other insects will alight upon you. You do not want a moth or beetle in your ear, so you will have to decide whether the risk is great enough to use earplugs.

American Bird's Wing Moth

Different moth aficionados will give you different advice, about everything from how to power your rig to what weather conditions are best. One standard is that the lunar cycle is important. The "new moon" (NO moon) is supposedly best, while the full moon is worst. Well, in June, one of our best nights was one day before a full moon. Go figure.

Sooty Chalcoela, Chalcoela iphitalis

Do what you are comfortable with, just look carefully before you give up, thinking that your lights did not attract anything worth your time. Many of our largest, most spectacular moth species are on the decline. Some are not drawn to lights anyway, or lurk on the fringes of the illuminated area. The greatest diversity, and often beauty, is in the "micros," those moths that are maybe ten millimeters or less in length. They can hide in folds in your sheet, or simply be so inconspicuous as to be overlooked.

Leafroller moth, family Tortricidae

We know very little about the overwhelming majority of moths, especially about where, geographically, they live. This is why taking pictures and sharing them is vital. You could easily document a "county record," verifying the first known occurrence of a species in your county. A "state record" is not out of the question, either, and that is a frequent outcome during moth week events.

Net-spinning Caddisfly, family Hydropsychidae

Your lights will draw other kinds of insects as well, some easily mistaken for moths. Chief among those are caddisflies, order Trichoptera. All are aquatic as larvae, but though you may be miles from water, you may still get the adult insects at your lights.

Brown lacewing

Brown lacewings, dustywings, and other members of the order Neuroptera can also look like moths at first glance. Their larvae eat aphids and other pests, so they are good neighbors, too.

Yucca moth, principal pollinator of yucca flowers

Remember not all moths are pests, by any stretch, and that they serve important purposes in pollination of flowers, and as food for birds, bats, reptiles, and other animals, including other insects.

Plume moth, family Pterophoridae

Have a very happy National Moth Week. You will not be disappointed if you choose to hold an event or join an existing, public one. There are many people willing to help you learn, in person, or online.

A "grass veneer" moth, family Crambidae

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"Product" is NOT the Answer to Every "Problem"

While I prefer to continue winning people over with compelling, fascinating stories of insect life and diversity, I would be remiss if I did not periodically issue posts aimed directly at changing human behavior in ways that will benefit them personally and other organisms as well. Thank you for indulging me in this exercise today.

Through my volunteer efforts and associations with, Facebook groups, and even this blog, I am frequently asked questions that begin with "How do I get rid of...?" The automatic assumption is that an insect or spider in the house, workplace, yard, or garden must have an inherently bad disposition, or negative effect on people, pets, or property. This is the mindset that needs changing.

Let me give these individuals some credit for asking at least. The people who never ask at all, who literally spray first and ask questions later, are the ones we should really worry about. First of all, they will never know what kind of creature they are dealing with, and whether the product they are using will even have the desired outcome. Secondly, they inevitably do not follow the application instructions and risk poisoning themselves, another member of the family, a pet, and/or unintended targets in the form of beneficial invertebrates; they could even blow their house to splinters and bricks. They don't call them bug bombs for nothing. Never mind that failure to adhere to application instructions is a violation of federal and/or state law.

The real crime, however, is that we are incessantly conditioned that "product" is the answer to every problem (even when there is NO problem), and we are paying for it in so many ways, not the least of which are the side effects of chemical dependency in the agricultural and gardening sense.

Here is what no one is going to tell you. The nursery and landscaping industries have sold us on the idea that we can plant whatever trees, shrubs, and flowers we like, wherever we live, with no negative consequences. This is proven to be not only false, but an enormous ecological catastrophe when you understand the effects of exotic botanicals run amok (invasive species), and the chemical dependency required to prop them up in inappropriate soils, climatic zones, and exposure to local animal life. Further, imported plants invariably bring with them exotic insect and other invertebrate pests that themselves wreak havoc on native plants and ecosystems. So begins the "pesticide treadmill" first articulated by entomologist Dr. Robert van den Bosch in the 1970s.

Without fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and other treatments, most ornamental plants cannot survive outside their native lands. Native plants do not need this kind of intensive care, are vastly better at supporting beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife we actually like to see, and their use in landscaping helps mend the holes in fragmented habitat that comes with suburban sprawl. Even in dense, urban areas, native vegetation can draw a shocking diversity of insect life normally relegated to what we would consider "wilderness."

We also greatly underestimate the ability of native plants to withstand nearly complete defoliation and bounce back just fine the next year. This is especially true of trees. A defoliated tree or shrub is not by definition "dead." The resiliency of flora in the face of natural agents of destruction is amazing. Meanwhile, the chemicals we dump on plants to "help" them? Not so good.

I cannot take credit for articulating all of this. Professor Doug Tallamy, in his landmark book Bringing Nature Home, outlines this dilemma eloquently. He also has the scientific studies and statistics to back up his claims. Besides the book, he also speaks to this idea wherever and whenever he is asked. Please check out this Youtube video for an example.

Making responsible choices in the marketplace and adjusting the attitudes within one's own mind are the keys to turning the planet's health around.

The same applies indoors. We panic and reach for the can of insecticide before we ask whether this one individual "bug" represents an actual pest problem or is merely an incidental, accidental visitor. We fail to repair the worn weatherstripping around doors, mend the holes in the windowscreen, inspect incoming objects from outdoors, and otherwise take simple preventative measures to exclude insects and arachnids in the first place.

If there is ever one post on this blog that I would ask you to share, it is this one. Please help spread the word that people can save money, time, and anxiety by simply being more curious, tolerant, willing to learn, and having faith in the way nature works without intervention. I will end with the remark that I have seen minds change, so I know it is possible. Stay tuned for those stories.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Filigree Skimmers Are Back

Back in July of 2014, I documented a single male Filigree Skimmer dragonfly, Pseudoleon superbus, for the first time in Colorado. I am happy to report that there now seems to be a viable population of this species in the exact same location as previously.

Considering that there was tremendous upheaval at this site when an enormous water line was laid right through the stream (perpendicular, but buried), I am amazed that any aquatic life survived, let alone prospered. The water level has been substantially lower since the installation of the pipeline, but that doesn't seem to bother all the resident Odonata, including Flame Skimmers (Libellula saturata), another rather uncommon species here.

Female Filigree Skimmer

I visited the site on both July 5 and July 7. I arrived around ten-fifteen in the morning the first day, just in time to see a female Filigree Skimmer ovipositing (laying eggs), while at least one male flew erratically around her. Females of this species hover over the water and dip the tip of the abdomen into algal mats, laying at least one egg with each thrust. She quickly finished, paused on a rock for a few seconds, long enough for me to get four images, and then vanished. I never saw her again that day and I stayed a good while.

Meanwhile, the male stayed, flying around one of the ponds and periodically flying up and down the stream corridor, which is bound by a narrow, high-walled canyon, albeit a diminutive canyon. As the day heated up, he assumed the posture known as "obelisking," whereby an overheated dragonfly sticks its abdomen straight up in the air to minimize the body surface it exposes to the sun. It is the dragonfly equivalent of a headstand.

"Obelisking" male Filigree Skimmer

Upon returning home later that day, I informed one of our local dragonfly gurus of my finding, and he promised to visit the next day, July 6. He had tried to find the one in 2014, but to no avail. I honestly thought that if I did not get corroboration, that entomologists everywhere would think I was crazy. Happily, that was not the case then, and it isn't now because my friend found the male this time around. He notified another dragonfly authority who was supposed to come visit the site on July 7, but I did not see him there.

American Rubyspot damselfly

A bonus of my walk through the canyon on July 5 was spotting a male American Rubyspot damselfly, Hetaerina americana. This is not an uncommon species here around fast-flowing streams, but it was the first one I have seen in city limits. The "canyon" is at best a series of ponds these days, so this damselfly may want to find more dependable habitat.

Downstream canyon where I found the Rubyspot

I got to the site a little earlier on July 7, and only found a single male Filigree Skimmer initially. As the sun rose in the sky, illuminating more of the area, he became more active and was, to my surprise, eventually joined by another male. They literally chased each other all over the place. It was rather amusing to watch. I even managed to get a picture with both specimens in the shot.

Two males!

Then, about ten-thirty AM or so, here came the female again. She seemed to materialize out of thin air, went about laying more eggs, paused again for a photo op, and then "poof!" She was gone as quickly as she had arrived. I am told that the males will chase females long distances, but she did not appear to have any escort, at least this time. Her wings are so heavily mottled, and her body so cryptic, she could have landed somewhere close and virtually melted into the landscape.

Our Colorado friends should keep an eye out for this species even farther north, in appropriate habitats: Rocky canyons in mostly arid locations.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Emerald Valley, 2016

For several years now, Heidi and I have been making an annual pilgrimage to Emerald Valley, which lies in the northwest corner of Cheyenne Mountain here in El Paso County, Colorado, and at over 7,500 ft. in elevation. Every third or fourth Monday in June, weather and Old Stage Road conditions permitting, we have joined or led the Aiken Audubon Society outing affectionately titled "Blooms, Birds, and Butterflies." They added "bugs" when I came along in 2012.

This year we had a total of eleven able hikers and flora and fauna enthusiasts. The forest and meadow scenery alone is worth the trip, with conifers and aspens towering overhead, and wildflowers of every description under foot.

Indeed, one of the major attractions is a trio of orchid species that we seek to count every year as a measure of ecosystem health and vitality. This year, all three species were in veritable profusion.

Most spectacular of all are Yellow Lady Slipper orchids, Cypripedium parviflorum. We tallied something like 287 plants, most in bloom, some not. We speculated on what pollinates this spectacular plant, and I had to look up the particulars online. It turns out that bees are attracted to the blooms by color and fragrance, but upon entering the bulbous "shoe" they find no pollen or nectar. The interior of the flower is disorienting, and forces the bee to exit out the back where it either picks up packets of male pollen that adhere to the insect's back, or deposits existing pollen packets to a female receptacle organ, or both.

Bees are not terribly dumb, and after a couple exercises in futility they learn to avoid the orchid altogether. Consequently, few plants reproduce each year, but fertilized flowers produce a multitude of seeds to make up the deficit. Seeds germinate successfully only if they land in soil populated by a certain symbiotic fungus. Transplanted orchids are destined to fail in the absence of this fungus.

Another common orchid, at least this year, is the Green Bog Orchid, Platanthera aquilonis, which grows almost exclusively along the very edges of streams and in soil prone to flooding or puddling. We tallied roughly fifty or sixty of those, but they are so cryptic that we undoubtedly overlooked dozens more.

The oddest and most scarce orchid was the Spotted Coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata, a species that favors drier conditions than the other two. It is wholly dependent on microrhizal fungi to provide it nutrients, as it does not perform photosynthesis like most plants do. We found all six or eight specimens associated with conifers, growing beneath them.

Red-naped Sapsucker

While birds generally remained out of sight on this trip, we heard plenty, including a MacGillivray's Warbler. We did catch glimpses of Dark-eyed Junco, Steller's Jay, Western Tanager, American Robin, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brown Creeper, and Northern Flicker. We heard Hermit Thrush and plenty of Warbling Vireos and House Wrens. Our favorite sighting was probably a pair of Red-naped Sapsucker woodpeckers, a species we see almost every time we visit Emerald Valley.

Weidemeyer's Admiral butterfly

Butterflies were common and diverse. Starting early as we do to avoid the inevitable stormy afternoons, we don't see some species, like Common Ringlet, until late morning or early afternoon. Present from the get-go is Weidemeyer's Admiral, males of which are territorial and ever-present along the road/trail.

Arctic Blue butterfly

Arctic Blues are having a good year, too, and you can see them on flowers or "puddling" at wet spots along the trail. Early on they bask on foliage, absorbing some solar radiation to help power their flight muscles.

Dreamy Duskywing skipper

The Dreamy Duskywing, a type of skipper, was a bit of a surprise. They are smaller than many other duskywings, but males perform the same territorial behavior of perching on tall, prominent objects and flying off to chase females or evict rival males.

Mourning Cloak butterflies sipping sap

At one point along the trail we came across a willow that was oozing sap from various wounds on its main branches. This attracted a multitude of Mourning Cloak butterflies, and a couple of Hoary Comma butterflies as well. Both species are "anglewings" that overwinter as adult butterflies.

Hoary Comma butterfly

These specimens represented the next generation, though. They were in excellent condition, with vibrant colors and intact wing edges (Hoary Comma has ragged wing edges by definition, though).

Mating Poplar-and-Willow Borer weevils

Also on the willow were a pair of mating weevils that I later identified as, no surprise here, Poplar-and-Willow Borer, Cryptorhynchus lapathi. They resemble little lumps of lichen, even individually, so it pays to take a second look when seeking them. The species is actually native to Eurasia, having been introduced here decades ago.

Female Trichiosoma triangulum sawfly

Also on the willow was a large female sawfly, Trichiosoma triangulum, probably looking for a leaf to insert her eggs into. The larvae of sawflies are caterpillar-like vegetarians that feed just like moth or butterfly caterpillars.

Male Elm Sawfly, Cimbex americana

Another member of this same family of sawflies (Cimbicidae), but larger still, is the Elm Sawfly, Cimbex americana. Several hefty males of this species were engaging in aerial duels in a meadow farther back down the trail. These are intimidating wasps, but they do not sting and can be approached closely if you are patient and stealthy.

Field Crescent butterfly on Black-eyed Susan coneflower

The meadows that punctuate the forest hold a great deal of insect diversity, but rather than make an exhaustive inventory here, I have created a photo album for "Emerald Valley, 2016" on my Flickr photostream.