Sunday, July 24, 2022

It's National Moth Week Already?!

Yes, National Moth Week is once again upon us! This year it happens starting yesterday, July 23, and ends Sunday, July 31. NMW is an annual citizen science event that anyone can participate in. You might start by visiting the National Moth Week website for information about the history of the project, and how to contribute your observations.

Suzuki's Promalactis Moth, Promalactis suzukiella

Despite a breezy to gusty night last night, we hung a blacklight, with a white sheet backdrop, from our front porch in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. Our neighborhood is more or less suburban, with modest yards around each home. It has been hot and humid, but with a prolonged dry spell, so I was not expecting much.

Yellow-striped Armyworm moth, Spodoptera ornithogalli, I think.

Still, we had many moths fly to our ultraviolet beacon. Many were small enough to be overlooked, or easily mistaken for leafhoppers, small caddisflies, or other insects. A few could be dismissed as bits of plant debris, so convincing is their camouflage, even on a white canvas.

Brown-shaded Gray, Iridoposis defectaria

Here is a small selection of some of the moths that appeared. I do not even know the identities of a few of them myself. Moths are that diverse, with little known about them unless they are of economic importance.

Skiff Moth, Prolimacodes badia

Walnut Caloptilia, Caloptilia blandella

Kermes Scale Moth, Euclemensia bassettella

Tubeworm moth, Acrolophus sp.

Small Baileya, Baileya australis

Stripe-backed Moth, Arogalea cristifasciella

Orange-headed Epicallima, Callima argenticinctella

The Wedgling, Galgula partita

Unidentified crambid moth

What is on your sheet, or at your porch light? Share them with the world. All it takes is a phone or camera, and a connection to the iNaturalist projects for global National Moth Week and United States National Moth Week. It is all free, and before you know it you will be scrolling through the observations of other moth aficionados from elsewhere. Happy Mothing!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

What is, and is NOT, a Japanese Beetle

It is that time of year again in North America when everything is a Japanese Beetle. No matter whether you are a trusted and reliable expert, other people will insist that Green June Beetles, Fig Beetles, Dogbane Leaf Beetles, and various other beetles, are in fact Japanese Beetles. Why is this the case? There is much misinformation online and in the media. Family, friends, coworkers, and others present themselves as experts and make incorrect identifications. Mobile phone "apps" can also be misleading, given the relative infancy of image recognition software and deep learning, which frequently compounds errors instead of correcting them. Here is everything you need to know about how to recognize the Japanese Beetle, Popillia japonica, as well as lookalike species.

L-R: Japanese Beetle, Green June Beetle, Emerald Flower Scarab

The Japanese Beetle, as its name implies, occurs naturally in Japan and northern China. An accidental introduction of this species to New Jersey in 1916 is apparently what launched the beetle's domination of yards and gardens over most of the eastern United States and southeast Canada. It delivers a double whammy to urban and suburban areas by feeding on the roots of turf grasses in its subterranean larval (grub) stage, and on the foliage of more than three hundred (300) species of plants as an adult insect. The beetles are "skeletonizers," leaving a net-like pattern of leaf veins in the wake of their chewing. Grape and rose are among their favorites.

Typical "skeletonizing" damage by Japanese Beetle

Japanese beetles are classified as scarab beetles, in the family Scarabaeidae, subfamily Rutelinae, collectively known as the shining leaf chafers. The adults become suddenly abundant about mid-summer. They fly well, quickly dispersing themselves over the landscape. Their sheer numbers, the telltale pattern of damage they do to foliage, their size, and their behavior help to make them easy to identify with a little practice.

Japanese Beetles congregating and mating

These are smaller insects than you might expect, ranging from 8.9-11.8 millimeters in body length. That is less than half an inch. They vary in color by individual and age, but most are shining metallic green and red. The flanks of the abdomen are adorned with tufts of white hairs, a feature no other lookalike beetle has. The elytra (wing covers) are striated (have grooves), which also helps set them apart from similar beetles. The hind legs are long and stout, with sharp spurs coming from the tip of the tibial segment (think "shin"). When disturbed, Japanese beetles will flare their hind legs out and up, presenting their spiked weaponry. They can give you a good prick should you insist on seizing one.

Japanese Beetle in defensive pose

The antennae of adult Japanese Beetles are short, with a series of leaf-like plates at the tip, typical of all scarab beetles and their allies. The term for this style of antenna is "lamellate" for "plate-like." The plates are covered in receptors that are tuned to species-specific pheromones for locating others of their kind. Pheromone traps, sold commercially, work well if your goal is to draw even more Japanese Beetles to your yard or garden. Hand-picking the insects and drowning them in pails of water, with a dash of dish soap to break the surface tension, may be the best way to control them. Time consuming for certain, but highly specific to the target pest, and otherwise environmentally friendly.

Green June Beetle, Cotinis nitida

The number one victim of mistaken identity in the Japanese Beetle game is far and away the innocuous Green June Beetle, Cotinis nitida, another scarab beetle that is native to the United States. This insect is much larger, at 15-27 millimeters in size. It is mostly matte green with some degree of iridescence in the right light, especially on the insect's underside. It may or may not be marked with ochre trim, and lines on the wing covers. You may hear these beetles before you see them, as they fly loudly. Green June Beetles, and their relative, the Fig Beetle (Cotinis mutabilis), are classified as "flower chafers" in the subfamily Cetoniinae. They have a special hinge on each wing cover that allows the elytra to remain closed while the membranous hind wings are deployed for flight. Consequently, flower chafers bear a great resemblance to large bees while cruising around looking for food or mates. Green June Beetle feeds on flower nectar and pollen, but occasionally damages ripe fruit; and they also feed on fermenting sap from wounds on trees. This makes them a mild pest under circumstances of orchards and nurseries. As grubs, Green June Beetles feed on decomposing organic matter. You will often see females diving headlong into compost and manure heaps to lay their eggs. In nature they look for rich humus.

Emerald Flower Scarab

Another flower chafer sometimes mistaken for a Japanese Beetle is the Emerald Flower Scarab, Euphoria fulgida. This beautiful beetle measures 13.4-19.8 millimeters. It is often highly active and quicker to fly than the other beetles mentioned so far. It varies considerably in color according to both the individual and the geographic locality it lives in. Specimens from the foothills of the Front Range in Colorado, for example, are deep purple and brilliant turquoise.

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Recently, I had a....disagreement with someone in social media about the identity of yet another beetle, the Dogbane Leaf Beetle, Chrysochus auratus. At 8-13 millimeters, it approximates the size of a Japanese Beetle. It is superficially colored the same, too, being brilliant metallic green, red, blue, bronze, or copper, depending on the angle of light hitting the creature. That is where the similarity ends. The Dogbane Leaf Beetle belongs to a completely different family, the Chrysomelidae. One look at the long, uniformly segmented antennae, tells you it is not a scarab. Its legs are not armed with spines or teeth, and it has cute, wide little feet for gripping plants. Most decisive, however, is the food preference for this species. Dogbane Leaf Beetle feeds only on....surprise....dogbane. You may occasionally encounter an individual that has alighted on some other plant in the course of trying to find a mate or another dogbane plant, but there will never be large numbers of them on anything but dogbane.

Female Tiphia wasp searching for buried scarab grubs

All manner of control strategies have been applied to the Japanese Beetle, yet here it is, still with us, in arguably greater numbers than ever, and steadily expanding its empire. We have imported the Spring Tiphia wasp, Tiphia vernalis, from China in 1925, a natural enemy. The female wasp digs up a beetle grub, stings it into temporary paralysis, lays an egg on it, and abandons it. The larval wasp that hatches feeds on the grub externally, eventually killing it. We also employ Bacillus popilliae, known better as "milky spore disease" to combat the grubs. The bacterium turns the beetle larvae a milky white color in the process of killing them, but it also affects native scarab grubs.

A large robber fly, Laphria lata, has skewered a Japanese Beetle on its proboscis

Be careful in how you control Japanese Beetles, lest you adversely impact garden allies. Assassin bugs, particularly the Wheel Bug, and robber flies, are among the chief predators of Japanese Beetles, but they need as natural a landscape as possible to proliferate and be effective controls. Invasive species are an artifact of global consumerism, and coveting thy (foreign) neighbor's flora. Resist the temptation and help prevent the next pest from gaining a foothold.

Nope, not a Japanese Beetle. Not even a beetle, but the nymph of a Green Stink Bug.

Sources: Evans, Arthur V. 2014. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 560 pp.
Ratcliffe, Brett C. 1991. The Scarab Beetles of Nebraska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. Bulletin of the University of Nebraska State Museum, vol. 12. 333 pp.
Berenbaum, May R. 1995. Bugs in the System: Insects and Their Impact on Human Affairs. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. 377 pp.
Fahmy, Omar. 2007. "Species Tiphia vernalis - Spring Tiphia,"
Eaton, Eric R. and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 392 pp.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Still Unable to Reply to Comments

Friends, I am still unable to reply to comments, even using a different browser. I am so sorry. I can do so "anonymously," in M.S. Edge, but then I have to approve my own comment! If anyone knows how to resolve this and can explain in as non-technical a manner as possible, please let me know. No answers in online forums are terribly helpful, nor current. Thank you.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

It Pays to do the Dishes: A Rarely-Seen Beetle is Found

The other day, July 7, I was washing the dishes and noticed a small insect clinging to the outside window screen. Perhaps it had taken shelter during the early morning storms that day….When I was finished with the plates and silverware, I went out to see what the creature was. It was a small jewel beetle, family Buprestidae. I took a picture and decided it was a species of Agrilus that I had not seen before in our Leavenworth, Kansas, USA yard. Boy, was I wrong.

When I first saw it, the beetle had all its appendages tucked in pretty close to its body, but when I disturbed it, it unfurled comb-like (pectinate) antennae, something you do not expect to see in a buprestid. I knew there was at least one species in which the male has this brand of antennae, so I looked it up.

Turns out it is the rarely-seen Xenorhipis brandeli. This specimen is on the large end of the 3-7 millimeter size scale for the species. Given that it is not economically important (damaging), a surprising amount of information is known about it. Unfortunately, most of the relevant papers are locked behind pay walls, and therefore not readily accessible to me.

Xenorhipis brendeli is one of only three species in the genus found in North America north of Mexico, and the only one ranging into the northeast U.S. All exhibit sexual dimorphism in the antennae, females lacking the branches that the males do.

Ringo Compean, commenting on one of my Facebook posts, said “That’s an eyelash bug.” How perfectly descriptive! It is still a subdued beetle compared to many members of the Buprestidae. It is basically black or dark brown with blue, green, and/or bronzy highlights, and yellowish accents on the “shoulders.”

Besides the extravagant antennae, males have a pair of large pits on the underside, on what amounts to their “chest.” These cavities are lined with many setae (hairs) that probably have some sort of chemosensory function. The antennae are definitely tuned to the species-specific pheromone released by virgin females. The insects are diurnal, but there is a narrow window when females emit their attractive scent. Males, at least, are very short-lived, so there is great urgency in finding a mate.

The preferred host trees for Xenorhipis brendeli are apparently hickories (Carya spp.), which includes pecans. There are plenty of hickories in Leavenworth, plus pecans in the bottomlands on Fort Leavenworth. Other known hosts include River Birch and Eastern White Oak.

The female beetle lays her eggs in crevices of bark on small limbs, about 5/8ths inches in diameter. This is of interest because I had piled small, dead and broken tree branches from our yard into a backyard brush pile for birds over the winter months. These were mostly from Pin Oak and maple, though.

The larvae that hatch from the eggs bore under the bark….and that is the extent of the preview I am allowed for the 1966 paper by S. G. Wellso.

The fate of this specimen is spoken for. It will be in the collection of a friend and colleague in Arizona, where it will have relative immortality beyond this blog post, eventually available for loan to scientists elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, I might have to inspect that brush pile again.

Sources:Paiero Steven M., Morgan D. Jackson, et al. 2012. Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America. Ontario: Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 411 pp.
Evans, Arthur V. 2014. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 560 pp.
MacRae, Ted C. 2012. “Extreme sexual dimorphism in Buprestidae: Xenorhipis hidalgoensis,” Beetles in the Bush.
Wellso, S.G. 1966. Sexual Attraction and Biology of Xenorhipis brendeli (Coleoptera: Buprestidae). J. Kansas Ent. Soc. 39: 242-245.
MacRae, Ted. 2008. “A new species of Xenorhipus from Baja California,” Beetles in the Bush.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Spider Sunday: Star-bellied Orbweaver, Acanthepeira stellata

NOTE:Today's post is an update of a previous post on November 11, 2012, prompted by a surprising recent find in our own back yard, on June 22, here in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. I habitually tour our property looking for insects, spiders, and other invertebrates, and almost dismissed a brown, thorn-studded object as a piece of plant debris that had become adhered to our siding. Fortunately, I had seen other individual Star-bellied Orbweavers previously, though none of them nearly as large as this one.The hard, spiked abdomen of this adult female was nearly the size of a dime.

Nothing to see here....Psst, she's facing southeast

There is no shortage of the weird in the spider world, and this animal is a stunning example. One of my friends on the photo-sharing site Flickr asked "Why is it 'star-bellied' when it's star-butted? Is there more star-ness on its belly?" Fair question, to which I have no answer. Maybe the person that first saw one described it from the ventral side. The pointy tubercles certainly show up from all angles. The spikes enhance its camouflage as it passes itself off as a bur, seed pod, or bit of dried vegetation.

She has legs!

Acanthepeira stellata is one of four North American species in the genus, collectively found from southeast Canada south and west to southern California. This species in particular is known from southeast Canada to Florida, and west to Kansas and Arizona.

An immature spider in its web in western Massachusetts

These are not large spiders. Mature females measure 7-15 millimeters in body length, males 5-8 millimeters. Their unique appearance may make them easy to identify, but quite difficult to find, unless they are sitting in the hub of their web, which they don't seem to do with dependable regularity. Couple their cryptic shape with the fact that they tend to build their circular snares less than three feet off the ground in prairies, fields, meadows, and forest openings, and it can be an exercise in futility to hunt them amid tall grasses. Should one degtect your approach, it will drop to the ground, fein death, and disappear in the tangle of vegetation.

Can you spot the spider at Thoh-Dah Prairie in Missouri?

Star-bellied spiderlings emerge from egg sacs in summer, and overwinter as immature or penultimate (one molt removed from adulthood) individuals. Adult females can be found from May to October, at least in Illinois (Moulder, 1992). Mature males can be seen from May to September. I have found near-adults in odd places, probably as a result of "ballooning." Ballooning is a dispersal strategy used by many young spiders to travel afar and stake out their own territories. A spiderling typically climbs up to the summit of a tall object, stands on tiptoe ("tip tarsus??"), and issues long strands of silk from its spinnerets. These threads are caught by the wind, and when the spider lets go it may be blown hundreds of feet, if not a mile or more. One baby A. stellata was captured at 1000 feet in the air over Tallulah, Louisiana, on December 13, 1930 (Fitch, 1963).

This little one has ballooned onto the beach at Cape May, New Jersey

Once settled, these spiders spin the characteristic orb web to snare insects, mostly immature grasshoppers. There is one record of an adult female preaying upon an American Green Tree Frog, Hyla cinerea, but this is certainly not a routine event (Lockley, 1990).

An adult at night in Broken Bow, Oklahoma

Star-bellied Orbweaver is not immune to predators itself. The Black and Yellow Mud Dauber, Sceliphron caementarium, is a parasitoid wasp that stings spiders into paralysis and stockpiles them in mud cells as food for a single larval wasp in each cell. The wasps are undeterred by a hard-bodied spider.

Subadult spider in its web at night in Adams County, Ohio

You may have better luck finding the Star-bellied Orbweaver at night. Many species of orbweavers that are in hiding by day move to the hub (center) of their webs after dark. Taking a night hike reveals another world anyway, nocturnal spiders being among the impressive highlights.

Sources: Guarisco, Hank. 2017. A Pocket Guide to Common Kansas Spiders. Wichita, Kansas: Great Plains Nature Center. 67 pp.
Fitch, Henry S. 1963. Spiders of the University of Kansas Natural History Reservation and Rockefeller Experimental Tract. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Museum of Natural History, Misc. Publ. nol 33. 202 pp.
Gaddy, L.L. 2009. Spiders of the Carolinas. Duluth, Minnesota: Kollath+Stensaas Publishing. 208 pp.
Lockley, T.C. 1990. "Predation on the green treefrog by the star-bellied orb weaver, Acanthepeira stellata (Araneae: Araneidae)," J. Arachnol. 18(3): 359.
Moulder, Bennett. 1992. A Guide to the Common Spiders of Illinois. Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Museum Popular Science Series, vol. X. 125 pp.
Weber, Larry. 2003. Spiders of the North Weoods. Duluth, Minnesota: Kollath+Stensaas Publishing. 205 pp.