Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Big Bug Hunt and How You Can Help

Last year in early October, I was approached by Jeremy Dore, founder of the company Growing Interactive, based in the United Kingdom. He was interested in having me collaborate in one of the company's major citizen science projects, "The Big Bug Hunt." He made a convincing enough argument that I signed on last month as one of the U.S. liaisons. What follows is a description of this ingenious endeavor; and how you can help, and benefit from, participating.

The Big Bug Hunt wants your Japanese Beetle sightings!

The aim of The Big Bug Hunt is to build a database that will be used to create a computer application which predicts with great accuracy the emergence of various pest insects in very localized areas. For example, if you have a vegetable garden in Raleigh, North Carolina, you will be able to receive a "reverse 9-1-1" alerting you to the possibility that squash bugs may be descending on your plot within days or weeks. You can then take preventative action now, and avoid using chemical controls later.

The technology that synthesizes this data and turns it into a predictive model is a facet of the discipline called machine learning systems. It means that computers are able to find patterns that humans cannot see. From what I understand, this technology is already applied to large scale agriculture. The goal of Growing Interactive and its subordinate projects like Grow Veg, is to provide the same kind of software tools to individual citizens and community garden personnel to insure their own success in meeting the collective mission of local food security.

The Big Bug Hunt can already predict some aphid emergences with precision

Growing Interactive is a family enterprise for Jeremy, his wife, and their friends; and they take great pride in serving the greater good. Jeremy decided to apply his background in app programming to farming more than ten years ago after his job as a network manager for a group of schools ended. What he has created since then is astonishing in its success. Growing Interactive enjoys the respect and collaboration of academic institutions like the University of York (England), for example.

The Big Bug Hunt is global in scope, but it has gotten off to its best start in the U.S.A. and the U.K. More data is needed, however, to facilitate better accuracy in predicting when common pests like the Japanese Beetle are likely to appear at a given locality. This is where you come in. Simply going to the website, or even clicking on the "Report a Pest" button at the top of my sidebar, will allow you to quickly report any insect, other arthropod, or even a slug or snail that you see in your yard or garden. It is that simple, no registration necessary. Reputational analysis will eventually weigh data according to accuracy, so no observation goes to waste.

Squash bugs are on the "hit list," too

With our ever-changing climate and landscape, a dynamic reporting and recording system like this is vital to every level of agricultural productivity, be it corporate or your own backyard vegetable garden. It will not work, however, without your willingness to contribute. Please consider adding your "two bugs worth," and I promise to keep you abreast of the latest developments here on my blog. Thanks!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Another Odd Carrion Beetle

I do not know what it says about our field excursions this year, or the state of our local fauna, or the state of our country, that we are finding carrion beetles to be the most interesting creatures we have observed so far. Case in point is the Western Spinach Carrion Beetle, Aclypea bituberosa, spotted by Heidi on Monday, February 20. We were walking the Front Range Trail in Clear Spring Ranch park, an El Paso County, Colorado park when we crossed paths with this unique beetle.

I happen to like spinach, especially fresh spinach, so I was disappointed to learn that the Western Spinach Carrion Beetle is considered an occasional pest of that plant. The adult and larval stages both feed on a variety of plants, including pumpkin, squash, beets, wheat, radish, rhubarb, potato, lettuce, cabbage, turnip, and rapeseed. Beets and spinach suffer the most damage in May. Aside from these crops, they consume lamb's quarters, povertyweed, and other native and introduced members of the plant family Chenopodiacea; and also nightshade (family Solanaceae).

The adult beetles emerge early in the spring, so apparently finding one at this time of year is not too unusual. Females lay their eggs in soil shortly thereafter, and in about a week the larvae hatch. The larvae feed during the day on young leaves and shoots of their host plants, hiding in the soil at night. There are three instars, an instar being the interval between molts of the exoskeleton to allow the insect to grow larger. The first two instars each last about five days, the third instar taking an average of fifteen days before the molt into the pupa stage. Mature larvae, black in color, are about 11-15 millimeters long. The pupa is buried one to two inches deep in the soil. The adult beetle emerges from the pupa in about three weeks. Thus there is one generation each year, the beetles overwintering as adults.

Note the "cleft lip" just behind the jaws

These are small insects as carrion beetles go, only 12-17 millimeters in length. They resemble several other carrion beetles but for a couple of features. The diagnostic character for this genus is the cleft labrum, or "upper lip" if you will, just behind the mandibles. The deep notch leaves no doubt as to the identity of the beetle. There are two species in the genus, but Aclypea opaca, the "Beet Carrion Beetle," is restricted in North America to Alaska and the Northwest Territories. It appears to be native to northern and central Europe, being introduced accidentally to North America.

The other feature that helps identify A. bituberosa is the pair of raised tubercles, one each near the rear of each elytron (wing cover). There are three conspicuous longitudinal ridges on each wing cover as well.

The beetle cleaned up and photographed at home

The Western Spinach Carrion Beetle is just that: a species confined to the northwest quarter of the U.S. and adjacent southern Canada, from British Columbia and Washington state south to central California east of the Sierras, and eastward to northeast Nebraska and southeast Manitoba. It is more common east of the Continental Divide, less so in the Pacific Northwest. The adult beetles are active from March through November, and occur both on the plains and in mountain meadows.

While I find carrion beetles quite fascinating, I cannot help but hope to find less morbid insects in the coming months, creatures that reflect the true optimism of spring. Plus, I need to start eating a little healthier, and this particular beetle is competing for "my" veggies.

Sources: Anderson, Robert S. and Stewart B. Peck. 1984. "Bionomics of Nearctic Species of Aclypea Reitter Phytophagous "Carrion Beetles" (Coleoptera: Silphidae)," Pan Pac Ent 60(3): 248-255.
Essig, E.O. 1958. Insects and Mites of Western North America. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1050 pp.
Monk, Emily, et al. 2016. "Key to the carrion beetles (Silphidae) of Colorado & neighboring states," Colorado University Museum of Natural History.
Swan, Lester A. and Charles S. Papp. 1972. The Common Insects of North America. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 750 pp.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Poor Substitutes

Two news stories crossed my Facebook newsfeed and the television news respectively last week that should raise concern for anyone advocating for the conservation of forests and pollinators. What the media hails as milestone inventions could have negative impacts for nature's originals.

© Hassnain Develish and Facebook.com

Hassain Develish's "World of Biology" Facebook group posted the above meme on February 5, describing a new, synthetic "biological leaf." This is actually old news, but this video explains Julian Melchiorri's creation and the potential applications he sees for it. First off, this is not a truly synthetic product. It still requires actual chloroplasts found in plants; and those chloroplasts are embedded in a structure derived from silk. Yes, the silk produced by caterpillars of the domesticated silkworm moth. It appears that there is not much truly unique here, except where you can deploy it. Synthetic leaves can be used where actual plants will not grow.

© Eijiro Miyako and Futurism.com

Meanwhile, Japanese chemists unveiled tiny drones coated with sticky horsehair that they claim could pollinate crops. I learned of this story on CBS News This Morning, and the accompanying video clip was so horrendous a demonstration of "pollination" that I started laughing. A similar undertaking is underway at Sussex University in England, under the leadership of Thomas Nowotny. His lab's drones are larger, but may be able to include GPS and other navigational technologies that the Japanese microdrones have no room for. Not to be upstaged, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University has produced robotic bees, too, and envision that they could be useful not only in pollinating crops, but in search-and-rescue, surveillance, and environmental monitoring.

Do we not see the implied messages in these endeavors? The implications are that we do not need the original, natural, biological organisms. Technology can make things "better" than nature. We can continue rampant deforestation because we can create synthetic leaves. We can tolerate a dwindling diversity and population of pollinating insects because we can make drones that do the job (at least for crops because no plants matter unless they can feed people). The most important, and disgusting, message being sent is this: Non-human organisms must have utilitarian benefits to humanity to justify their existence.

Even if you believe in creation instead of evolution, you must admit that we were instructed by God to serve as stewards of creation, not given the mandate to replace it. Indeed, we are servants to other organisms, and they in turn are servants to us, but not always in such black-and-white, easily understood ways. Nature is complex for a reason, and the many other organisms that are responsible for human success on planet Earth are not always as charismatic as butterflies, bees, and trees. Moreover, while it is natural for any organism to view the world selfishly, to enhance its own dominance, humans can actually succeed in eliminating our predators, parasites, and competitors. We do this at the expense of not only those other species, but at the cost of our biophilia, our innate love and reverence for other creatures.

Remember, insects like bees are also food for other creatures. Tiny metallic drones offer no nutrition to a hungry bird, and would likely kill any predator mistaking them for real bees. There is that, and the fact that I, for one, find mechanical facsimiles of insects and other animals far less captivating than the real thing. Indeed, I find them boring, simple, and poor substitutions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

It's Always Something....

To quote the lovely Ms. Rosanne Roseannadanna, "It just goes to show you, it's always something." It may take months, even years, to learn that something you observed and recorded is noteworthy, or potentially so. Such was a recent case in which an image I posted on Bugguide.net was finally identified, more or less, leaving still more questions than answers.

November 27, 2014, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., I was at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo where my wife works as a primate keeper. The zoo restaurant staff caters a holiday lunch, and employees bring potluck dishes to supplement. Before and after the feast, I was out looking for insects, as the weather was reasonably conducive to finding late autumn macro-fauna.

On a wooden fence railing I spotted what at first I thought might be an aphid. Upon closer inspection, it was an aphid relative known as a "jumping plant louse" or psyllid. This is a tiny insect. Total body length is only 2.6 millimeters, or 4-4.5 mm if you measure from head to wingtip. It varies from light green to greenish gray.

Psyllids were once lumped into a single family, but research has shown that there are several families. A few species are very abundant and conspicuous, like hackberry psyllids. A few others are economically impactful, especially in orchard crops. The remaining majority are poorly known, keeping a very low profile on native plants.

The image I uploaded to Bugguide understandably floundered in obscurity until February 2 of this year when I received notification that someone had left comments and even moved the image into genus-level classification. I was grateful, but also surprised by the comments left by Chris Mallory:

"Bactericera nr. arbolensis
In nearly every regard it is consistent with this Shepherdia-associated species originally described from Arboles, CO. However, the medial cell of the forewing is much smaller than described and illustrated, and in this aspect it does not agree with any known described species.
There could be several reasons for this. First, the size of the medial cell of B. arbolensis may be more variable than the literature suggests. Alternatively, this may be an undescribed but related species. In either situation it is a very interesting find. I'd love to see more of them."

Wow. Chris Mallory is an expert on the superfamily Psylloidea; and is also one of the individuals behind the comprehensive online guide SoCalFauna.net, a photographic gallery of most of the animals one is likely to encounter in southern California.

Thanks to the in-depth profile page at Chris's Psyllids.info website, I learned that the species he thinks it might be is known from Silver Buffaloberry, Shepherdia argentea and Canadian Buffaloberry, Shepherdia canadensis. Neither of those plants is very common, if found at all, along the Front Range of Colorado. It is, however, conceivable that the zoo landscapes with one or both of them, so I will have to check out that possibility. Meanwhile, there are few literature records of the psyllid itself: MONTANA: Roosevelt County; WYOMING: Sweetwater County: Green River; COLORADO: Montrose County: Cimarron; LaPlata County: Durango; Archuleta County: Arboles. All but the Montana record are from west of the Continental Divide. The type specimens, those from which the insect was described and named, were 3 males and 4 females collected by C.F. Baker in Arboles.

There are 24 known species of Bactericera found in North America north of Mexico, and mine is potentially a twenty-fifth. This just goes to show you, you never know what you might turn up if you point your gaze, and camera or phone, at a yittle, teeny-tiny bug.

Sources: Crawford, D.L. 1914. A Monograph of the Jumping Plant-lice or Psyllidae of the New World. 85: 186 pp. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Tuthill, L.D. 1943. "The Psyllids of America North of Mexico: (Psyllidae: Homoptera)," Iowa State College Journal of Science. 218 pp.