Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thankful For Small Wonders

On Thanksgiving day I usually make a pilgrimage to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where my wife works as a keeper of orangutans, gorillas, Golden Lion Tamarins, and related primates. Thursdays are part of her regular work schedule, but at least the zoo's grill caters lunch for the staff and their families on the holiday. The rest of the day I do an informal mini-bioblitz looking for uncaged wildlife, mostly insects and spiders, of course. You would be surprised by what you can find in late November.

Convergent Lady Beetle

With all the press about a very legitimate "insect apocalypse," it does me good to get out and realize there still is a respectable degree of arthropod diversity, at least for now, and despite heavy human impacts. Last Thursday I managed to find over thirty (30) species of insects and spiders in casual searching, mostly on fences where it is easier to spot small organisms that are otherwise well-camouflaged or esconced in nooks and crannies and cracks and crevices.

Gall midge, a type of fly

Right now there is a good deal of major construction happening on zoo grounds, so there is upheaval of normally static habitats. The zoo is located on a mountainside, the landscape remaining largely natural with mixed coniferous trees, an understory of Gambel's Oak, chokecherry, and various wildflowers and herbs and grasses, most of them native. Yes, there are fruit trees and various exotic flora planted for visual pleasure, and a butterfly garden designed to attract the more colorful insects found in the region, but mostly the place has a very natural look.

Jumping plant louse, Cacopsylla pararibesiae

Zoos do not like to publicize the native fauna found on their grounds because in some instances non-captive animals can transmit diseases to the vulnerable captive animals. This is cause for both veterinary concern as well as potential disciplinary action by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the organization responsible for issuing accreditation to zoos for adherence to basic professional standards. This is certainly understandable, but most native animals seen at zoos are birds, sometimes squirrels, and, overwhelmingly, insects. Zoos that fail to acknowledge and embrace those local creatures are doing a disservice to visitors.

Ichneumon wasp

It bears repeating to say that "biodiversity begins at home," and demonstrating how visitors can promote biodiversity on their own property should be a priority at zoos and botanical gardens. That can take the form of a butterfly garden, brush pile, a drilled block of wood that functions as a "bee condo" for solitary bees, or a small water feature to service birds and aquatic insects. You should probably take this only as far as hummingbird feeders, at least here in Colorado where bears and other dangerous wildlife will take full advantage of any food you offer to other kinds of birds, squirrels, and even your own pets. It is in fact a violation of law to feed wildlife.

Flat bark bug, family Aradidae

Simple signage can do a lot to inform zoo guests about the local ecosystems and the role of various animals in maintaining them. Indeed, there are placards around the zoo that do address pollinating insects, bark beetles, etc. It is a start, and something other zoos should emulate as it applies to their own unique macro-fauna.

Ant-mimic spider, Castianeira sp.

Besides the "bugs" themselves, I am grateful for citizen science and social media outlets where I can share images of what I find, and hopefully encourage others to follow suit on their next visit to the zoo, city park, community garden, or even their own backyard. At this time of year, even a bioblitz in your shed or garage or basement can turn up a surprising variety of life forms. Just don't tell your spouse or your mom if they have hostile inclinations toward uninvited animals.

Seed bug, family Lygaeidae

I post regularly to iNaturalist, and occasionally to Facebook....and I need to get back to Project Noah. Whether you know a cockroach from a carpet beetle or a butterfly from a moth, no matter. Share what you observe. Others will help you learn about the critter in question. You may even find something previously unknown to your neck of the woods, to your state, province, or even new to science altogether. There is no end to the discoveries that await you.

A small dung beetle, Scarabaeidae: Aphodiinae

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Surprise!

You won't believe me if I tell you that this new book came as a surprise to the authors, but it is true. Dr. Greg Paulson and myself just had the second edition of Insects Did it First published by Xlibris, as of Friday, November 16. These days the wheels of digital presses turn much faster than us old school writers are accustomed to.

The theme of the book is the parallel between human innovations and social behaviors and those evolved by insects. The similarities are uncanny, inspirational, and occasionally downright mind-blowing. Perhaps we should call this the twenty-first century edition of the original, as we added some chapters resulting from discoveries made after the first edition's 1992 publication date. Were I not such a procrastinator, we might have turned the book out even earlier, but thanks to Greg's diligence, here it is at last.

The initial concept was the brainchild of the late Dr. Roger D. Akre and E. Paul Catts, and Greg Paulson, who conspired together at Washington State University where Akre and Catts were professors, and Paulson a graduate student. Dr. Akre spearheaded the campaign, gathering many "insect inventions" over several years, recruiting many of his colleagues and contemporaries for suggestions. Dr. Catts contributed not only his own knowledge, but his artistic talent as well, rendering a wealth of cartoons to illustrate the chapters. The resulting book enjoyed a popular but brief run thanks to Ye Galleon Press.

Thanks to the solid foundation of the first edition, this latest version continues the tradition of strong, lively prose complemented by Catts' whimsical humorous illustrations. We updated the introduction to honor the original "cast," and added an epilogue to set the stage for what we imagine will be an even brighter future full of new discoveries and human plagiarism of natural "patents." Mother Nature is full of limitless surprises that inspire daily.

We are eager for you to enjoy this unique publication, but not exclusively for our own financial benefit. In fact, portions of the proceeds from sales will go toward scholarships in the name of Dr. Akre and Dr. Catts at Washington State University. It is the least we can do to pay our respects to these two giants of entomology.

While the book is also available through Amazon, we respectfully ask you to consider purchasing through the publisher, Xlibris. The sooner we reach the break-even point for publishing costs, the quicker we can begin contributing to those scholarships. When we receive instructions on how to secure our author's discounts, we will also be offering the book through those channels, too, and, as always, I am happy to sign and ship copies to my followers here. I will update this post as developments warrant. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: Hidden Kingdom is More Than "Eye Candy"

The latest offering from scientist, author, and photographer extraordinaire Piotr Naskrecki is sure to surprise and delight even the most seasoned tropical naturalist, student of entomology, and globe-trotting eco-traveler. Hidden Kingdom: The Insect Life of Costa Rica (Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, 2017) represents one of the best introductions to arthropods in general, regardless of the geographic limitations noted in the title.

The centerpiece of this book, like his previous works, the critically acclaimed The Smaller Majority and Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine, is Naskrecki's mind-blowing imagery of creatures easily overlooked in the natural landscape. He literally renders his subjects larger than life, but then explains how the impact of these invertebrates far exceeds their diminutive stature. So, the magnified macro-world in pictures is simply a reflection of the unheralded, underestimated import of insects, spiders, other arachnids, and crustaceans to the rest of life on Earth. He further communicates this with clear, assertive prose that elevate any reader's understanding of the natural world.

The organization of the book makes it all the more inviting to those who might be unfamiliar with insects (the first chapter asks "What is This?"), or even downright afraid of them. He addresses the intimidation factor head-on in the chapter "Is it Dangerous?" He deftly explains why appearances like "Horns, Spines, and Claws" can be deceiving, but tiny sand flies and mosquitoes can put you in the hospital because of the tinier-still parasitic microbes that they inject when they bite you.

Remaining chapters discuss how insects survive through camouflage, chemical defenses, advertisement of those chemical defenses, and mimicry of other species with chemical defenses, as well as how insects communicate and how those devices for talking to each other allowed some insects to ascend to the truest societies in the animal kingdom.

Scientific terms are generally explained in context, with their first usage in the text, though the book might still have benefited by a glossary, even in place of the index. Some of the taxonomy (scientific classification) differs from what I have come to know, but there exist differences even in scientific circles and these discrepancies cannot be considered errors. Yes, there are a couple of grammatical errors, but I have yet to read a contemporary book without any.

Naskrecki refrains from preaching about the imperiled ecosystem that is tropical forests, and considering that he no doubt witnesses deforestation and other destructive practices every time he goes afield, this restraint is admirable and refreshing. If anyone ever asks "what's the big deal" if we cut down the Amazon, hand them a copy of Hidden Kingdom and ask them to get back to you. This book is a testament to exactly what is at stake for not just the healthy functioning of our planet, but for the future of advances in medicine and other human endeavors.

I would not hesitate to recommend Hidden Kingdom as a textbook for any college-level introductory entomology course. The initial chapter alone informs all the major orders of insects, independent of Costa Rica; but, those professors who teach classes in tropical natural history would do well to assign this book in advance of field trips to the New World rainforests, and dry forests.

Naskrecki has made advances in tropical biology of a magnitude comparable to Darwin, Wallace, and other heroic naturalists of a bygone era. One can scarcely believe that Piotr has the time to write and illustrate books, share his findings on social media (Facebook in particular), lead film crews into the forest (PBS Nature's six-part "Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise"), or mentor other photographers (BugShot macrophotography workshops), but he accomplishes all of this and more. His is a brilliant mind and generous spirit that are a rare combination. Naskrecki is without question one of the most publicly accessible scientists of our time, even considering that the digital age makes nearly everyone "followable."

Hidden Kingdom is a paperback book of 208 pages. Forgive the awkward dimensions (10 X 10 inches), as it dramatically amplifies the impact of the magnificent photos. Reward and promote excellence in science and art by treating yourself, your family, and friends to a copy of this most outstanding reference.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Don't Try This (Pest Control Method) At Home

The news is replete with stories of people who have accidentally destroyed their homes, workplaces, and other structures in an attempt to kill a spider or insect. These are the sensational and drastic results of misguided intent, but there are many other negative consequences possible from do-it-yourself pest control. Do not be a sucker, a law-breaker, or the next headline.

A Word About Spiders

At this time of year, spiders venturing indoors is a top complaint of many homeowners. Please understand that if you notice a spider in your home or office it is an indication of....absolutely nothing. It is not out to get you. It is not a sign of an "infestation." It is not a sign that there are more to come. Male spiders of all kinds are on the prowl for females, and even those species that normally spin webs abandon them to look for mates, mostly in autumn. There are also plenty of spiders that never spin webs, like wolf spiders, jumping spiders, and longlegged sac spiders. Both males and females traverse large areas in search of prey. Occasionally, they will find their way indoors. Simply coax one of these spiders into a container and escort it outside to a log, stone wall, brush pile, or other place it can easily find cover. Thank you.

Foggers

Foggers are also known as "bug bombs," and can live up to that name if you fail to follow the deployment instructions to the letter. Forgetting to extinguish a pilot light on the water heater or furnace before detonating a fogger can result in burning your home to the ground, or blowing it to bricks and splinters. Moreover, as with any general insecticide, you are killing beneficial insects, and spiders and other arachnids, along with whatever pest you were targeting. Yes, those cobweb weavers in the corner are already controlling pests like carpet beetles and fungus gnats, and other household nuisances.

Read the Instructions!

Use a DIY product if you must, but be aware that improper application of that product is a violation of federal law. That is correct: You are subject to prosecution for misusing pest control products and devices. Yes, we do have to make a federal case out of it because the consequences of your ignorance can be far-reaching. This is especially true of lawn and garden chemical treatments. There is a reason that commercial landscape services are required to post those flags and signs after they poison, err, "treat" your lawn.

One of the most common mistakes with over-the-counter products is the assumption that using a greater quantity than prescribed in the label instructions will be more effective. The "more is better" philosophy can compromise the health of yourself, your family members, guests, and pets. Furthermore, some people may be hypersensitive to chemicals in the product, even if they are "inert" ingredients and not active compounds.

Don't Fall for "Harmless" Alternative Products

Say you do have the best interest of the environment at heart. You want the most benign, but still effective, "green" alternative. Good for you, but tune your scam senses to high alert, then. Among the most popular and well-advertised devices are those ultrasonic repellent thingies. They have been scientifically proven time and time again to be essentially worthless. Do not fall for it.

Consult the Proper Authorities

"Bug Eric" is not an expert on pest control. When in doubt, ask unbiased professionals about pest control products and strategies. Look for resources and agencies that do not have an agenda and are unaffiliated with either industry or non-profit organizations. The Environmental Protection Agency has a web page on the Do's and Don'ts of Pest Control that is a good place to start. Use your local branch of the Cooperative Extension Service for recommendations specific to your geographic location. The National Pesticide Information Center, headquartered at Oregon State University, is a wealth of factual information and additional resources. Subscribe to Consumer Reports magazine, a product of an independent product-testing institution that enjoys a stellar reputation in matters of consumer awareness and public safety.

Did I Mention Prevention?

It bears repeating that taking measures to prevent pests from gaining a foothold indoors or on your property, is the best solution. I will continue to post on this subject, but you can do your own research, too. Remember your neighborhood librarian is your best friend, and your library a wealth of information now networked with other public libraries, university libraries, and other resources around the world. Maybe you will begin with books like Tiny Game Hunting or The Humane Gardener.

Be In It For The Long Haul

Above all, understand that pest control never ends. There is no permanent solution. As the authors of Tiny Game Hunting write, "Thinking we can get rid of our pests permanently in one fell swoop is like taking a shower and believing we will be clean for the rest of our lives." Patience, persistence, and vigilance is necessary to keep the upper hand. Altering your mindset, your level of tolerance, and understanding of your insect and arachnid "enemies" is also key. We may need an attitude adjustment before we do anything else.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Couple of Weirdos

My last post here focused on the joys of National Moth Week, but what I neglected to mention was the added benefit of other insects being attracted to blacklights. Sometimes you get strange and significant surprises at your ultraviolet beacon. This is the story of two of those.

Clown beetle, Ulkeus intricatus, from Chico Basin Ranch

During our first moth week event at Chico Basin Ranch on July 21, we were all taking images of the moths that were drawn to our lights. There were plenty of other insects, too, like true bugs, flies, even a few wasps, plus lacewings, antlions, and beetles. I tried to document most everything, but it was not until I began editing my pictures that I noticed something spectacularly wierd. In one corner of an image of a moth was a beetle I recognized instantly as a "clown beetle" in the family Histeridae, but it had strange flanges on its legs and was a lot more bristly and "groovy" than the usual hister beetle.

It was reddish in color, too, while nearly all other clown beetles are jet black. I was aware that some clown beetles are found only in association with ants, and so I began looking at various species in the subfamily Hetaeriinae. Sure enough, up popped Ulkeus intricatus as the most likely suspect.

Legionary ants, Neivamyrmex sp., hosts of the clown beetle

So, now I begin researching this species, or at least the genus, to find out what its life history is like. It turns out that it is found only in the company of legionary ants in the genus Neivamyrmex, which makes things stranger still. Legionary ants are in a group of ants that includes army ants. They are nomadic, and mostly nocturnal, raiding the nests of other ants to prey on the larvae and pupae. This explains why the beetle was flying just after sunset: It was looking for a party of legionary ants and got distracted by our UV lights.

Exactly what the beetle does with, or to, the ants is largely unknown. My references say that the beetles are "guests" of the ants, which could mean anything from mutualism to kleptoparasitism (mutually beneficial relationship versus stealing the ant's food), or something else entirely. Exactly how the beetle would complete its life cycle if its host has no nest raises questions, too, though Neivamyrmex colonies are known to be sedentary over the winter.

Male legionary ants like this one fly to lights at night, too

There are six recognized species in the genus Ulkeus in the U.S., collectively ranging from North Carolina and Tennessee to Florida and west to Texas and Arizona. Five of those species are yet to be named and described, so I may be jumping the gun to assign a species to this one, especially since I never saw the thing let alone collected it. For all I know it is a seventh species.

Braconid wasp, Chrysopophthorus americanus

My wife and I put out a blacklight near Lyons, Colorado on July 22, despite cool and damp conditions, and among the many insects that flew in was a small, ghostly-looking wasp. I recognized that it was probably a member of the family Braconidae, wasps parasitic on other insects, but was baffled after that. Thankfully, there is Bugguide.net, and I started browsing the images to see if anyone else had recorded this wasp and, if so, was it identified.

Lo and behold, there it was, identified as Chrysopophthorus americanus. That almost never happens, being able to get a species identification that way. What's more, I learned that this wasp is a parasite of adult green lacewings (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Talk about a specialized niche. Since lacewings are often attracted to lights, it stands to reason that their parasites would be, too. Apparently the female wasp inserts her egg into the abdomen of the lacewing. The larva that hatches then feeds as an internal parasite inside the lacewing, eventually exiting to pupate.

Those beautiful emerald eyes!

What a wacky couple of "bugs." That is what I love about entomology, and natural history in general: You never know where one observation is going to take you, how one species intertwines with others....It is supposed to be a mild night here on October 21 and I am half-tempted to put the sheet and the blacklight out.

Sources: Caterino, Michael S. and Alexey K. Tishechkin. 2009. "A New North American Genus of Hetaeraiinae (Coleoptera: Histeridae), with Descriptions of Six New Species from the U.S.A. and Mexico," Zootaxa, 2311: 1-18.
Maxwell, John R., et al. 2008. "Species Chrysopophthorus americanus," Bugguide.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Remembering National Moth Week 2018

A tiger moth, Apantesis sp., from Lyons, Colorado, July 22.

Today it is cold, foggy, and there is still some snow leftover from yesterday here in Colorado Springs. What better time to look back on warmer times and the insects that could be found back then? National Moth Week this year was July 21-29. Despite the fact there was a full moon during that period (the worst possible conditions for putting out a blacklight because the lunar light is literally superior competition that nocturnal insects navigate by), we had very interesting results along the Front Range.

A leaf blotch miner moth, Caloptilia sp., from Chico Basin Ranch on July 21.

As has been the case for at least three years now, the Mile High Bug Club sponsored and executed local events during National Moth Week. Weather conditions varied considerably, as that time of year represents our season of almost daily storms, but we persevered and accumulated good data sets from casual observations and imaging. We posted most of our images to iNaturalist, and anyone can search by location and date for the results.

This large Carolina Sphinx moth, Manduca quinquemaculatus, showed up at Chico Basin Ranch on July 21.

For the second year in a row we kicked off the week on Saturday, July 21, at Chico Basin Ranch, a sprawling 80,000+ acre parcel that straddles the El Paso and Pueblo County line. This year we were again on the El Paso County side, setting up our lights at the bird banding station composed of a building and a nearby barn.

Emerald geometer moth and friends, Chico Basin Ranch

Almost immediately we attracted moths, beetles, true bugs, flies, and other insects to our blacklights and mercury vapor light. Thanks to being located well away from water, we were not inundated with caddisflies, variegated mud-loving beetles, and other aquatic insects like we were last year; so, the night was much more comfortable and we did not inhale any insects accidentally, nor take that many home in our vehicles.

Rufous-banded Crambid moth, Mimoschinia rufofascialis, Chico Basin Ranch

Insect diversity in general was very good, in a year in which overall insect abundance has been exceptionally low. The diversity of habitats at the ranch, most natural and some man-made, has much to do with the biodiversity of insects, birds, and other wildlife found there.

An owlet moth, Grotella septempunctata, from Cheyenne Mountain State Park, July 24.

Our second of four events was on Tuesday, July 24, at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just south of Colorado Springs off of Highway 115. The park always welcomes us and adds our events to their schedule for the campers in the park to enjoy. Indeed, we had a respectable, if brief, turnout from visitors. Many families had children that were either up past their bedtimes already (especially those from different time zones), or were easily bored, or both.

Ilia Underwing moth, Catocala ilia, from Bear Creek Nature Center, July 27.

Our third event was Friday, July 27, at Bear Creek Nature Center in Bear Creek Regional Park, and it included a presentation on moths by yours truly. We had a very good public turnout, but the weather was absolutely miserable. At least the rain stopped by the end of the talk so that we could deploy our lights on the deck out back. Thankfully, a large underwing moth made an appearance, and even stayed long enough for everyone to get a look. Most of the other moths were small and difficult to see on the stucco-textured exterior of the building.

Artichoke Plume Moth, Platyptilia carduidactylus, at Bear Creek Nature Center, July 27.

We were back at Cheyenne Mountain State Park for our concluding event on July 28. Once again we had questionable weather, and zero attendance from the public. Still, if you light it up, they (moths) will come, and that night was no exception.

Jaguar Flower Moth, Schinia jaguarina, at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, July 28.

My wife and I also took a weekend trip to Lyons, Colorado, north of Boulder (northwest of Longmont), July 22-24. We stayed at Stone Mountain Lodge and Cabins, and did our blacklighting there. The wooded area, with cliffs rising above the lodge, along with landscape trees, shrubs, and plants, supported quite a diversity of moths and other insects, even given the unseasonably cool, damp weather.

A twirler moth, Aristotelia sp., from Lyons, Colorado on July 22.

Next year, Mile High Bug Club may opt to do fewer events during the designated National Moth Week to avoid stormy weather. Here along the Front Range we seem to have two peaks in moth diversity and abundance: One in mid- to late June, the other in about mid-September. Obviously, one goal of the national event is to remain consistent in the timing and location of observations to note trends in abundance and diversity over time. That may not always be a true reflection everywhere, though. The chief goal of our bug club events is to simply recruit new members of the public to an appreciation of the butterflies of the night.

Owlet moth, Andropolia theodori, from Lyons, Colorado, August 23.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Coming in October....

Fighting Flame Skimmer dragonfly males

Several new posts will be coming to this blog in October. You can look forward to a diversity of topics aimed at a variety of audiences. It is easier for me to write during the colder months of the calendar year without the distracting urge to be outdoors observing insects and spiders, so expect a few more posts in general through the winter.

"Don't Try This at Home" will feature the drawbacks of do-it-yourself pest control using over-the-counter products.

"Why I No Longer Collect" will discuss my personal reasons for not collecting insect and spider specimens, which may give aspiring young scientists and hobbyists reasons to pause.

"A Couple of Weirdos" will highlight some surprising species discovered by accident during the past summer.

"Remembering National Moth Week" will revisit the excitement of putting out blacklights in various locations in Colorado this past July.

There will be other posts that spotlight the few trips we took close to home and far away this year in search of insects and other wildlife. Additionally, I plan to feature posts that offer tips on circumstances and situations that are not to be missed if you want to find unique insects; and how to get images of insects and spiders engaged in various behaviors.

So, grab that pumpkin spice beverage and prepare to be engrossed next month. That's different from just "grossed." It means "captivated," "enthralled." I'll do my best to live up to your anticipation.

Friday, September 7, 2018

No Exterminator Necessary

Modified from © Pests.org

If this blog is successful at achieving only one thing, let it be a widespread understanding that you almost never need a pest control service. Here is your one stop post for how to tell if you need a service, and what you can do instead.

Just Passing Through

Every household, business, and workplace will have the occasional insect or spider visiting. Arthropods are masters at finding their way through the tiniest crack, crevice, hole, or other access point, which they hope will lead them to greener pastures, not indoors. They are not out to get you and they are not a sign that you are in for more creatures like them. It is usually a one-time event. Do not panic and dial up an exterminator.

One recent scientific study found that the average home is occupied, at one point in time or another, by somewhere between 30 and 200 species of insects, arachnids, and related arthropods. Still no reason for fear. In fact, the greater the biodiversity the better. It is a sign that your home is not sterile, but running on all natural cylinders. Most insects are so small you do not even notice them anyway.

The Pest Control "Racket"

While most pest control enterprises are ethical and fair, here are some points to consider:

  • The technicians that visit your location are usually not entomologists trained to properly identify pests. They are schooled almost exclusively in proper application of insecticides to insure compliance with state and federal regulations.
  • It is in the best interest of a pest control company to identify as a pest any insect that concerns you, regardless of whether it is a pest.
  • Most pest control companies require a contract that guarantees repeated visits to your premises. Think about that. We expect plumbers and electricians to do the job right the first time.
  • When was the last time a "product" or "service" solved anything? In the case of pest species the answer is almost never. The best solution is prevention and attitude adjustment.

You DO Need a Service When....

There are some situations in which you do need professional help. Those are:

  • Bed Bugs are challenging for professionals, let alone do-it-yourselfers, and you will need to find a reputable company to deal with them.
  • Structural pests like termites and carpenter ants. Make sure, however, that you are not mistaking an outdoor swarm event for an indoor infestation. A termite inspection is usually a requirement for home sale and purchase. Find an unbiased agent to conduct that inspection. Request an inspection if you suspect a termite or carpenter ant infestation before employing a pest control company.
  • Social bee or wasp nest in a troublesome location. Always employ a bee removal service if you find a nest in a location that impedes your day-to-day life. Otherwise, note the location of the nest so you can simply avoid it. In most regions of North America, nests of yellowjackets, paper wasps, and the European Hornet are not perpetual, nor re-used the following year. Feral honey bee hives are perennial.
  • Cockroach infestations that have reached extreme population levels. It is important to note that cockroaches have only been implicated in transmission of bacteria, never proven. Prolonged exposure to dense populations of cockroaches, their shed exoskeletons and feces may trigger allergies and asthma in some people, especially children in multi-family dwellings. Insist on a pest control service that uses baits rather than sprays for a longer-lasting, near permanent effect instead of repeated visits to spray insecticides.

The Cure is Prevention

Here are some ways to reduce the potential for pest problems in your home:

  • Repair worn weatherstripping on doors and repair holes in window screens (or replace them).
  • Seal all cracks and crevices, including around places where pipes and electrical conduits enter or leave the home. Pack steel wool into such situations, use caulking elsewhere.
  • Inspect all objects coming indoors from outside, especially plants, firewood, toys, gardening tools....Inspect new plants before you leave the nursery or store.
  • Do not reach your extremities into locations you cannot see into. Be careful moving items out of long-term storage to avoid spider bites, disturbing a wasp or bee nest, etc.
  • Do not leave clothing, gloves, or footwear outdoors overnight, nor in the garage or shed. It never hurts to shake out shoes and clothes anyway.
  • Reduce outdoor lighting or employ motion-sensors or bulbs that are less attractive to nocturnal insects. This will also discourage spiders from stringing their webs across your front and back doors.
  • Never stack firewood against the side of your home, as this will help termites and carpenter ants to become established. Reconsider wood mulch as groundcover.
  • Learn tips for how to avoid bed bugs in your travels and thrift store shopping. Entomologists estimate that soon one out of every four homes will have bed bugs.

Treatment for You!

Nobody wants to hear the suggestion that maybe they are the source of a problem, but sometimes that can be the case. Please seek professional help if you have phobias of insects (entomophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), or related creatures. It will save you a great deal of money and emotional turmoil to go that route. Otherwise, visit an entomologist for a gentle "attitude adjustment." We can cite example after example of the beneficial qualities of insects and the potentially disastrous effects of continued addiction to chemical pest treatments.

Please feel free to share this post widely. I also welcome comments, even dissenting opinions, as long as they are worded in polite language. Everyone deserves to make a living, and we will always need pest control services for situations where every other alternative has been exhausted.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Stop This Meme

Here at Bug Eric, I have better things to do with my time than constantly fight wave after wave of misinformation, superstition, and outright hoaxes. The latest is this one purporting that a "new" and "deadly" spider has invaded North America. Utter nonsense!

The spider depicted in the images is the very much harmless Woodlouse Hunter, Dysdera crocata. This spider is originally from the Mediterranean region of Europe, but made its way to North America ages ago, not recently. Yes, it has wicked-looking jaws and fangs, which are used solely to turn over its roly-poly and sowbug prey so that it can inflict a lethal bite on its food, not on human beings. The venom of this spider has not been scientifically proven to be the least bit dangerous to the average, healthy person.

"But, but...." you say, citing the watermark on one of the images in the meme as being from the University of Nebraska. Surely we can trust our institutes of higher learning, right? Yes, but not if their image has been stolen by some malicious individual out for hits on his or her own website. The university should consider filing suit against whoever is using this image. There are laws against copyright infringement, which is what is happening here. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) exists to protect our "works" from unscrupulous individuals who seek to profit from our efforts at education and enlightenment.

By sharing this meme, and others like it, without doing due diligence of fact-checking (a quick check on Snopes would have yielded the truth about this one), serves only to perpetuate ignorance at best, and participate in crimes of "fake news" and, in this case, copyright violation. Stop it.

© Jenn Rose #jennrosefx

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Pseudoscorpions: The Strangest Arachnids?

Yes, the image below is of a crane fly in the family Limoniidae, but what is that other thing attached to it? The crane fly showed up at our backyard blacklight a few nights ago in Colorado Springs, and by itself would have been interesting. Its hitchhiking companion made it even more spectacular.

Crane fly with pseudoscorpion gripping its leg

Pseudoscorpions are tiny arachnids, most of them under five millimeters in length, that never fail to provoke head-scratching among people unfamiliar with them. They look like they could be baby scorpions that are missing their telson ("tail"), but they are literally in an order unto themselves: Pseudoscorpiones. They are fairly common, but seldom seen because they frequent microhabitats under bark on trees, stumps, and logs, or leaf litter or topsoil, or in mammal nests or caves, or other places that require a dedicated effort to uncover them. It is only those species that occasionally turn up in our "caves" (homes) that catch our attention.

I wrote about pseudoscorpions previously, for Missouri Conservationist magazine, thanks to fantastic photographs by Ashley Bradford and Ted MacRae, but this week's find finally allowed me my own imaging opportunities. It is interesting that the insects favored as transportation by pseudoscorpions are frequently those associated with decaying wood: longhorned wood-boring beetles (Cerambycidae), braconid wasps that are parasites of wood-boring beetles, and in this case a female crane fly which I would bet oviposits (lays eggs) in decaying wood.

Pseudoscorpions are predatory on other small invertebrates such as springtails, barklice, fly larvae, and mites. They seize their prey with the pincer-like chelae at the ends of their "arms." Those heavy, muscular appendages are actually modified mouthparts called pedipalps. Many species of pseudoscorpions have venom glands in the chelae that help subdue struggling victims. From there, the prey is passed to the plier-like chelicerae, or jaws, that puncture the body wall of the prey, or crush it, and allow for the introduction of regurgitated enzymes to begin the extraoral digestive process. The resulting liquified material is then ingested by the pseudoscorpion.

Bizarre? We are just getting started. The chelicerae also house silk glands, and pseudoscorpions spin silk to encase clutches of eggs, for shelter during molting and overwintering, or even as a retreat from which they can wait in ambush for unsuspecting prey to pass within reach.

Using another animal for transportation is a behavior called phoresy, and that appears to be the chief means of dispersal for pseudoscorpions. They do not have wings, after all, and are so tiny that getting from one optimal niche to another under their own power is almost impossible. Also, they do not "balloon" as many spiders do, spinning silken threads that are caught by the wind and waft the spider to a new home.

After the crane fly died, the pseudoscorpion disembarked and I was able to get the images you see here. I discovered they are much more agile than I anticipated. This one could scuttle backwards fairly rapidly, run forward quickly, and it could easily climb the slick walls of our casserole dish "studio." Maneuvering the tiny creature with an artist's paintbrush was challenging since the animal could simply grip a single bristle and refuse to let go.

The social life and love life of pseudoscorpions is surprisingly complicated. Members of some species can live side by side without antagonizing each other, displaying unique and rhythmic movements of their bodies and/or pedipalps to communicate. Meanwhile, courtship between male and female in nearly all species is accomplished through a variety of behaviors. In all cases, the male packages his sperm in a spermatophore. In the most primitive scenario, he simply deposits on the ground or other substrate where he hopes a female encounters it. She will then pick up the spermatophore in her genital opening.

Males of other pseudoscorpion species will only deposit a spermatophore if they encounter a female. These males may then spin a simple or elaborate, three-dimensional silken bower to help funnel the female to the location of the spermatophore. This greatly improves the male's chances of reproductive success.

Mating can be more intimate in the most "advanced" species. This involves what is best described as dancing, the male grasping the female's pedipalps in his, and gently but firmly guiding her over the spermatophore he has just deposited. There may be subtle choreography and pre-programmed body movements involved in that. They may even kiss, if you will, interlocking their chelicerae.

Pseudoscorpion from leaf litter in Massachusetts

Despite the extent of our collective knowledge of pseudoscorpions, new species are discovered with a surprising degree of regularity. Those who study caves and other specialized habitats; and those who study rodents and other vertebrates, would be wise to keep their eyes out for pseudoscorpions. Meanwhile, carefully inspect the insects at your porch light and you might eventually find one of these arachnids on an insect attracted by your beacon.

Sources: Johnson, Elizabeth A., and Kefyn M. Catley. 2002. Life in the Leaf Litter. New York: American Museum of Natural History. 28 pp.
Weygoldt, Peter. 1969. The Biology of Pseudoscorpions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 145 pp.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Wasp-watching

It has been difficult to build-up enthusiasm this summer because insect abundance is way down here in Colorado Springs, but when I get to witness an event like I did yesterday, it makes me glad I went out and made an effort.

Female Ammophila sp. with heavy load

I happened to glimpse a very odd, fairly large insect out of the corner of my eye. It took me a minute to realize it was not a single insect, but two: a female Ammophila sp. thread-waisted wasp toting a caterpillar she had paralyzed. She was trying to locate the concealed nest burrow she had excavated before going hunting, and was wandering around rather aimlessly, but at high speed.

At one point she cached the caterpillar so she could orient herself without such a burden. It worked. She found her burrow, then went back and got the caterpillar. I was lucky to get any images of the transport because she moved so speedily and kept going in and out of focus. Even an attempt at video may have been almost useless. Her agility, with such a heavy load, was impressive. It would be like you or me running at full speed carrying a sofa between our legs.

Removing the "door" to her burrow

She abruptly dropped the caterpillar, and in a matter of seconds uncorked the stone plugging her nest burrow. She quickly entered her burrow, turned around inside, and re-emerged to grab the caterpillar and pull it in. She has to be this fast to avoid tiny parasites known as "satellite flies" that will lay tiny maggots on the caterpillar before the wasp can get it secured underground. Indeed, there was at least one miltogrammine fly flitting at the entrance to the burrow.

Pulling the caterpillar into her burrow

About a minute or so passed with both the wasp and her caterpillar underground. Finally, she emerged topside and quickly retrieved the stone that had plugged the burrow opening previously. She replaced the stone and began kicking sand on top of it. Notice how she curls her front "feet" to maximize the tarsal rake of spines that aid her in digging and filling. At one point she was startled by a curious ant and took to the air for a spit second. Ants can raid wasp burrows and cart off the caterpillar and wasp egg as food for their own young back at the colony.

Replacing the "door" to her burrow

By now I was getting a bit stiff from having stood in the same place for a long while. When I left the wasp, she was apparently unsatisfied with the nest closure and was actively chewing down to the rock plug. I left her in peace to finish what she had started.

Kicking sand to conceal the entrance

The whole sequence of events involved in the provisioning of a nest by a solitary wasp is truly remarkable. She has to dig her burrow and, load after load, flies off with armfuls of soil to fling across the landscape, lest some predator or parasite recognize her nest from piles of "tumulous" around the opening. Next, she fills in the burrow entrance, obliterating all evidence of any cavity whatsoever. She may make a brief orientation flight and then go off to hunt. How does she ever find the burrow again? We cannot even remember where we parked our car, or left our cell phone, and we reportedly have much larger brains than wasps do.

Startled by an ant

Once she has completed her mission of providing one paralyzed caterpillar for a single offspring, she goes off to start the process all over again, somewhere else. Does the wasp immediately forget about the burrow she just completed? How does that instinct work? It has to be plastic enough to address unique situations and overcome obstacles.

Up and away for good?

Over the coming months, in that underground cell, a wasp larva will hatch from the egg and begin consuming its still-living but inactive larder. Scientists believe that insects have no pain receptors, so that must be a blessing to the caterpillar. Were it deceased, though, the caterpillar would quickly rot under the assault of bacteria and fungi. After consuming the caterpillar, the wasp larva enters the pupa stage, as equally inert as the caterpillar on the outside, but inside the pupa there is a massive reorganization of cells converting the grub-like larva in to a sleek, winged adult wasp. Some genes are turned on, others are turned off. It is amazing to contemplate that a wasp larva, or caterpillar, has inside it the latent ability to execute all the behaviors of the adult. It somehow "knows" it cannot fly, does not need flower nectar, and cannot reproduce as a larva. It understands at some fundamental level that its only job is to eat and grow.

Some finishing touches

The next time you are out hiking, and a wasp flies up from under your feet, stop for a second. Back up a little. Does the wasp return to the vicinity? If so, keep watching. She is probably in the process of working on a nest burrow and will resume her activities if you stand still. It takes a little practice just to think about this possibility, but the rewards can be astonishing.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

I Value Your Comments, But Am Not Getting Notifications

I have not been receiving e-mail notifications of comments on this blog as I used to, but thanks to a prompt from one of you I discovered I had a whole backlog of comments awaiting my moderation. Some of those dated back to September of last year! I will try and get the notifications generated again, but in the meantime I will look in on pending comments at least weekly. You have my sincerest apologies for this oversight. Thank you.

Why do I bother screening comments? My posts would be "spam city" if I did not, and I know you don't want unsolicited advertisements for Viagra and such, abusive language, and other nonsense.

An Insect "State of the Summer" Report

Here in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and elsewhere in the state, it has been anything but a normal summer. Not that there is any such thing as "usual" in this age of aridification and climate change, of course. What follows are personal, anecdotal observations related to weather, insect diversity, and insect abundance so far this season.

Mammatus clouds signal impending hail
Weather

There are only three words needed to describe the weather this summer: Hot, dry, and stormy. We have had recent stretches of ninety-plus degree days, well above the expected average. The excessive heat has been punctuated by severe thunderstorms. At our home, we have had more hail events this year than in the five-plus previous years that I have lived here....and we were lucky. One major hail storm dumped baseball-sized ice balls on the city of Fountain, just a few miles down the highway from Colorado Springs. Repairs to vehicles and roofs and other damaged property will take months and cost many thousands of dollars.

Accumulated hail in our backyard today!

Beyond the city, at least fifteen wildfires have burned thousands of acres of forest and grassland, rendering wildlife habitat and recreational destinations unfit for man or beast for years to come. That does not even address the human dwellings and other structures that were lost in the blazes. Now, heavy rains like we had at our home today will cause flash flooding over the burn scars, and lead to water damage at the bottom of slopes.

Aristotelia elegantella, a tiny twirler moth new to our yard
Insect Diversity

Insect diversity appears....relatively stable, though it is difficult to assess for reasons that will become clear later in this story. Interestingly, every time I turn on our backyard blacklight I seem to attract some species new to me and new to our growing "home list" of animal organisms that now exceeds 440 taxa (levels of classification from Kingdom to species and every level in between). I have managed to excite even seasoned moth experts with some of the nocturnal Lepidoptera that are turning up. We have even had a pine sawyer (Monochamus clamator) and bark beetles (Dendroctonus sp.) come to the blacklight. I suspect someone brought firewood down out of the mountains and the beetles are emerging from it.

Spotted Pine Sawyer, Monochamus clamator
Insect Abundance

Numbers of individual insects are way down. I have to work hard just to find species normally overwhelmingly present. It is this situation that has made assessing diversity more difficult. It is disturbing to note how few insects there are visiting wildflowers, but wildflowers are fewer and farther in between, too, smaller in size and lower-growing than usual, making it difficult to detect them, let alone any pollinators. Yellow Sweet Clover, Melilotus officinalis, an exotic invasive that is now well-established throughout the U.S., and its relative White Sweet Clover, are overwhelmingly abundant this year. They normally attract plenty of pollinators, but I find almost none.

Overwhelming parasitic mite load on Melanoplus sp. grasshopper

Another worrisome observation is that the few arthropods doing well are mostly parasites of other arthropods. Parasitic mite loads on grasshoppers are in some instances frighteningly high. Bee flies are doing well but their hosts, solitary wasps and bees among others, are not prospering. Cuckoo wasps and cuckoo bees are at about average density and distribution.

Bee flies, like this Poecilanthrax arethusa, seem to be doing fine

Even the European Paper Wasps nesting on our back gate have failed to produce more than about two new workers the entire summer so far. That is shocking since they are among the most successful of social predatory wasps.

The New Normal?

Should this year be the beginning of a trend, it would be devastating. Our drought-stricken landscape needs to be watered with historically normal rain patterns or another Dust Bowl will be upon us, threatening not only wildlife diversity but human sustenance in the form of crops and livestock. The forest wilderness cannot take further fragmentation if wildlife populations are to endure, especially large predators that require vast individual territories for hunting and rearing offspring. We need to start treating our own properties as potential wildlife habitat, planting with native vegetation. It may be that we also need to assume some degree of latitudinal climate change and plan accordingly, adopting drought-resistant cultivars into our landscaping.

Our backyard milkweed garden ravaged by today's hail

What are you observing where you live? Share your stories and concerns and possible solutions. This blog is a community built by all of you, please speak up.