Friday, October 28, 2016

Review: The Sting of the Wild

Justin Schmidt is widely acclaimed for creating the Schmidt Pain Index that ranks the potency of the stings of bees, wasps, and ants, based largely on self-inflicted experience. It naturally follows that a book is in order to explain what most would consider a crazy person's pursuit. The Sting of the Wild, from Johns Hopkins University Press, is an odd combination of memoir and study in the scientific method. Does it succeed as either?

Full disclosure is also warranted here. I have known Justin as a friend, mentor, and colleague for decades, and am truly in awe of how his mind works. He asks questions that no other scientist does, then creates ingenious ways to test his hypotheses. No one I know is as innovative, persistent, and hard-working in the name of basic research. I was hoping that his personality and character would be reflected in this book.

The book contains what may be the best explanation of the attraction of certain people to scientific careers:

"Science is an exploratory process more so than a goal to realize. Yes, there are goals, and these must be clearly defined for funding agencies to support the research, but the real excitement and driving force in science is the adventure of seeking the goal, not in attaining the goal."

That is what I was anticipating from this volume: excitement and adventure. I have heard enough stories from Justin to know that he has a nearly limitless source of material, and is able to engage colleagues easily. So, what happened to that? Why did it not translate well to the written page?

If your usual reading in entomology is Howard E. Evans (Life on a Little Known Planet and Wasp Farm), May Berenbaum (Bugs in the System), or Bernd Heinrich (In a Patch of Fireweed), you will likely be disappointed by this book. Those unfamiliar with scientific terms, or chemical molecular structure, will find the book over their head at times, or at least dry and flat. Anecdotes from the field are lively enough, but too few and far between to sustain momentum of the narrative. The reader is forced to weave together the author's timeline from disparate passages and references, so the autobiographical aspect is also broken.

It stings me to say this about the book because its author is someone who should be admired and emulated. Schmidt is profoundly curious, a quality sadly lacking in too many scholars today, if not outright squelched by an academic environment that demands we be more concerned with "managing" nature than understanding it first. He is not some caricature or dare-devil as the media tends to suggest, but this book does little to change that impression, let alone create an understanding of what drives Schmidt's curiosity.

Despite its shortcomings, I learned a good deal from this book, and that alone may be enough to recommend it, at the very least as something worthy from your local library. A general audience is, unfortunately, not going to flock to this book. It reflects the novelty of the author's life, but lacks relevance to the reader unless he or she is also a scientist or aspires to be one. The complete "Schmidt Sting Pain Index," which makes up the appendix, is not enough to push the whole book into the limelight. The best natural history books ignite in the reader the urge to explore and discover. This one might keep them indoors, as a virtual spectator of other adventurers.

Friday, October 21, 2016

In Praise of Aphids and Scales

When the flowers of autumn are gone, when even the asters are fading fast, where is a wasp or bee or butterfly to go for sustenance? The answer may surprise you, and turn your concept of what is a "pest" on its head.

Highly active, flying insects like bees, wasps, flies, moths, and butterflies rely on high carbohydrate resources like flower nectar to fuel their vigorous lifestyle. When those normal floral resources are no longer available, the insects must travel down other avenues. Fallen, fermenting fruits are one solution. The high sugar content of an apple, pear, or peach beginning to rot does not go overlooked by yellowjackets and paper wasps in particular.

Western Yellowjacket with conifer aphid at center left and Pine Needle Scale at center right

Pomes and other fruits are not, however, the answer to autumn insect nutrition. The overwhelming majority of sweet, sugary carbs are provided by other insects, namely aphids and scales. At this time of year, aphids in particular are feeding on plant sap in earnest, and excreting copious amounts of liquid waste called "honeydew." Infested trees are literally dripping with honeydew, and a great diversity of other insects are drawn to this equivalent of the corner bar.

Conifer aphids and their shocking large eggs

Many aphid species are also transitioning to alternate host plants for the coming winter. This is why you see so many aphids on the wing, landing on your plate at the tailgate party, and otherwise providing a tiny but prolific nuisance to outdoor activities. The aphids thus need their own fuel, and it takes a ridiculous amount of plant sap to yield that result. Xylem and phloem are notorious for being nutrition-poor, so sap-sucking insects cycle those products rapidly through their digestive systems. Liquid honeydew comes out as fast as sap is going in.

Even this Painted Lady butterfly is enjoying aphid honeydew

Social wasps tend to dominate the scene at fall aphid colonies. Because the wasp colonies are winding down, if not finished altogether, their paper palaces have emptied totally and there are now vastly more individual wasps out in the field than there were earlier in the year when many workers were inside the nest feeding the larvae, building new cells in the comb, and engaging in other housekeeping chores. With no purpose left to serve except their own individual survival, worker yellowjackets might qualify as unstable or mentally-ill were they human beings.

A blow fly literally getting its licks in

Meanwhile, flies, the normal prey of many social wasps, are free of worry from the purposeless wasps and fearlessly rub shoulders (humeri?) with them at the aphid honeydew banquet. The aphids themselves are still vulnerable to flower flies (family Syrphidae) that lay their eggs in the colonies. The fly larvae that hatch eagerly feast on the aphids, along with lady beetle larvae and lacewing larvae.

Larva of a syrphid fly that preys on aphids

Here in my Colorado Springs, Colorado neighborhood, ornamental conifers seem to be real aphid magnets. The trees are no doubt at least a little weakened by their circumstances of planting, isolated from other trees in soils that are not always compatible; and maybe (probably?) minus the symbiotic fungi they need to help them get their own complete nutritional requirements.

Striped Pine Scale on ornamental pine

Scale insects, too, afflict these pines, firs, and spruces. Scale insects are relatives of aphids, but are even more sessile, often covered in a hard, waxy shell secreted by the insect. The "lump" is thus a living lid over the insect that created it. Like aphids, scales secrete honeydew as a waste product. If you are unaccustomed to recognizing scale insects, it is easy to be perplexed by the wasp and fly activity. Even butterflies and moths will be flitting around inexplicably.

A tiny ichneumon wasp visits the honeydew saloon

So, the aphid colony is a bustling place at this time of year, the last epicenter of "bug" action before the leaves finally fall and the killing frosts finish off those insects still commanding our attention. They still survive, of course, hidden from view, often in life cycle stages we would not recognize as insects until spring returns them as such.

The yellowjacket trap at bottom right was not nearly as attractive as the "aphid tree" next to it

Enjoy this last hurrah of bugdom. You can easily approach the buzzing horde without fear, so intent are they on feeding. Worry not of stings, though be careful where you reach and step. This is no season to be barefoot to be sure.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: Diving Beetles of the World

Johns Hopkins University Press is an underrated publisher of natural history titles for both professional scientists and general audiences. Their latest example of impeccable quality is the book Diving Beetles of the World: Systematics and Biology of the Dytiscidae, by Kelly B. Miller and Johannes Bergsten. It is somehow fitting that a relatively ignored family of aquatic beetles gets its "coming out party" delivered by a publisher assumed to be mostly a purveyor of medical books.

Diving Beetles of the World should be a model for a serious and thorough treatment of any entomological subject. Every aspect of the biology, ecology, and classification of the family Dytiscidae is covered here. It is this placement of the beetles in a larger context that is so vital, and so often lacking in other technical publications devoted to various insect taxa. Creating an appreciation for a neglected family of organisms is no small feat, and this publication vastly exceeds expectations.

Rhantus gutticollis from Colorado

It helps greatly that the book is lavishly illustrated with detailed images of perfectly prepared specimens of the beetles themselves. Even a casual student of entomology will feel comfortable at once. Furthermore, keys to the subfamilies, tribes, and genera of diving beetles are likewise illustrated with line drawings and clear, magnified images of critical parts of the beetles' anatomy. Were that not enough, there are also maps showing the global distribution of each genus.

The summary for each genus includes a "diagnosis" of physical characters peculiar to that genus, in case you missed anything during your journey through the keys; a history of classification and relationships to other genera; a description of diversity that includes the number of species currently recognized for that genus; a natural history indicating what habitats and niches the particular genus occupies in nature; and finally a distribution description that complements the maps.

Thermonectus marmoratus from Arizona

The authors, one American and one European, fully recognize the fluid nature of insect taxonomy and have cited virtually every paper and publication written previous to this current work. This sets the stage perfectly for ongoing and future investigations into the Dytiscidae.

Considering that aquatic ecosystems are arguably the most critical habitats on the planet, this book deserves to have an impact far beyond entomology. Every aquatic biologist, environmental consultant, and citizen scientist needs to have this volume in their library, or at least seriously consider it. Should you not make the purchase yourself, please suggest it to your university library.

Colymbetes sculptilis from Massachusetts

Indeed, the only unfortunate aspect of this tome that does not recommend it is the price: $150.00 U.S. Easy for me to enjoy my review copy while my readers are looking at a major expense, no doubt. Still, this is an important work, not just a gift for "the entomologist or naturalist who has everything." How to reconcile quality work with an affordable sale price is a question for another blog, and believe me I am open to suggestions. In the case of Diving Beetles of the World, the product commands the monetary value assigned to it.

Note: Images other than the book cover are my own and are not featured in the book.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Great Grasshopper Hunt II

I am terribly behind in chronicling field experiences I have participated in this summer, including the second annual(?) "grasshopper hunt" co-sponsored by Mile High Bug Club and the Aiken Audubon Society. Our first one was held last year at Homestead Ranch Regional Park near Peyton, Colorado. This time we opted to head farther south and a little farther east to Chico Basin Ranch; and we were led by grasshopper expert Bill Maynard.

Our intrepid participants © Bell Mead

The ranch is a sprawling 87,000 acres that straddles the El Paso and Pueblo County line. Its wide array of habitats, from sandhills to artificial wetlands, makes for high biodiversity, especially among insects and grasshoppers in particular. In only a few hours our party of roughly ten people observed forty (40) species of grasshoppers, plus many other insects and arachnids.

Pink form of the Broad-banded Grasshopper, Trimerotropis latifasciata

Bill is rather new to the study of grasshoppers, but he quickly masters many aspects of natural history. He is already recognized as a leading authority on birds and dragonflies, with many state and county records to his credit. It is only a matter of time before the same can be said of his expertise in the order Orthoptera to which grasshoppers belong.

Rather than overwhelming you with images here, I will direct you to the Mile High Bug Club Flickr Group where you can peruse the image collection at your leisure.

Snakeweed Grasshopper, Hesperotettix viridis

We would be remiss if we did not also acknowledge the hospitality of the Chico Basin Ranch staff, especially Tess Leach and her family. Her two children were especially curious, and remarkably patient and gentle in their approach to the many grasshoppers we saw.

Three-banded Grasshopper, Hadrotettix triafasciatus (foreground), signaling to a Broad-banded Grasshopper (background) to get out of its territory

The intense heat of that August 6 day sent some members of our party packing by about noon, but who could blame them? The Plains Harvestfly, a type of cicada, made it seem hotter still with its loud, oppressive buzz. All in all, the "expedition" was a resounding success, and no vehicles or people were injured during the odyssey.

Plains Harvestfly, Neotibicen dealbatus

While plains and deserts are prime habitats for grasshoppers, you can find them nearly everywhere. You will be surprised by the number of species you can discover in your own backyard, neighborhood park, vacant lot, or any other patch of wildness. Even now, with the first frosts approaching, grasshoppers are among the few insects left in any abundance. Go take a look for them.