Monday, October 24, 2022

Fall (Bug) Colors

October is the heart of autumn in many parts of North Amreica, with intensifying colors of fall foliage. Insects reflect the changing hues of plants, the better to camouflage themselves. As chlorophyll recedes, xanthophyll (yellow) and other carotenoids (orange), begin to manifest. Anthocyanins (reds to purples) become prominent, too. Could it be that insects feeding on those leaves take on the same colors? Perhaps the insects are merely responding the shrinking period of daylight as the leaves are doing.

As leaves begin falling down, alate (winged) citronella ants, Lasius sp., fly up, in hopes of finding mates from nearby colonies.

Greens persisting

This year, here in northeastern Kansas anyway, an exceptionally dry summer has resulted in subdued fall colors. Green leaves persist, even if they are withered from a record-breaking hard freeze last week. Some insects insist on being wholly green, or at least partly so.

A male lesser meadow katydid, Conocephalus sp., basks on a sidewalk.

Green Mantisfly, Zeugomantispa minuta, on the side of our house.

Nymphs of the Pale Green Assassin Bug, Zelus luridus, will overwinter in that stage.

Ah-ha! It is Bristly Roseslug sawfly larvae, Cladius difformis, doing all this damage to our roses.


Beige is an overwhelmingly common color of fall in pastures and fields, and even lawns thanks to our current drought. Insects of the same color merge seamlessly with grasses and weeds, becoming nearly impossible to detect unless they move. On windy days it is even more of a challenge. Thankfully, for entomologists and bugwatchers, insects frequently alight on, or are blown onto, sidewalks, the sides of buildings, and other surfaces where they stand out.

A Corn Earworm moth, Helicoverpa zea, attracted to a blacklight in our front yard.

This stink bug, Thyanta sp., has highlights of rose and green, too.

A jumping spider, Colonus sp., prowling the exterior of our house.

Yellow and gold

Many insects with warning colors are bright yellow, and black, regardless of the seasons, but in autumn they complement the colors of plants.

A Cloudless Sulphur, Pheobis sennae, pauses in our flower bed.

A Goldenrod Soldier Beetle, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus, in the absence of flowers, looks forlorn on the side of our house.

A worker Eastern Yellowjacket, Vespula maculifrons, lingers on a hosta leaf.

One yellowjacket mimic is this syrphid flower fly, Helophilus sp.

Orange and red

Orange and red are less common colors in insects, and often part of the loud wardrobe of aposematism (warning colors), or mimicry of other insects that are well-defended by venom or toxins. Lady beetles defend themselves by autohaemorrhaging, or “reflex bleeding,” from leg and body joints. An alkaloid toxin in the haemolymph is aromatic and sticky, quite repulsive to would-be predators.

Eastern Comma butterfly, Polygonia comma, will overwinter as an adult, hidden in a crevice in a log, or a similar niche.

Some checkered beetles, like this Enoclerus ichneumoneus, are likely mimics of velvet ants (which are wingless female wasps with a potent sting).

Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle, Harmonia axyridis, is also known as the "Halloween Ladybug" for the time of year it is most conspicuous as it seeks winter shelter on or inside buildings.

Worker citronella ants, Lasius sp., are a lovely orange or yellow.

Metallic colors

Many insects are iridescent, often vividly so. Whereas the preceding colors are expressed by pigments that absorb all wavelengths of light except the one we interpret as brown, beige, green, yellow, orange, or red, or black, iridescent colors are produced by a different mechanism. These structural colors are rendered by micro-sculpturing, and/or layering, of the cuticle of the animal’s exoskeleton. Light bounces and reflects, and the color we see varies depending on the angle of the light hitting the organism.

Many longlegged flies, family Dolichopodidae, have bright metallic colors, and run rapidly over the surface of leaves.

Metallic sweat bee, Augochloropsis sp(?), pausing to groom herself.

"Greenbottle" blow flies are brightly metallic green, copper, or bronze.

"Bluebottle" blow flies, Calliphora sp., are weakly iridescent on the abdomen.

White and multi-colored bugs

A few insects are white, or appear so at least. This is especially the case for true bugs that exude waxy secretions to protect themselves from desiccation and make themselves distasteful to predators. Leafhoppers display almost every color combination imaginable in patterns of spots, blotches, stripes, bands, and speckles.

Whiteflies are not flies, but tiny, wax-dusted relatives of aphids.

Drepanaphis sp. aphids are studded with spikes that help hold in place the white wax they secrete.

A teneral male Familiar Bluet damselfly, Enallagma civile, has subdued, pastel colors compared to the vivid blue it will have eventually.

Versute Sharpshooter leafhopper, Graphocephala versuta, is a tiny living rainbow.

Until next time

Keep looking for colorful “bugs,” deep into fall. Some will enjoy your rotting Jack-O’-Lantern. Others will find their way indoors, preferring the same comfortable climate you yourself enjoy. Meanwhile, I will do my best to keep cranking out blog posts to help you identify them. Stay warm and dry, friends.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Jim Anderson: My Original Mentor

Last week I learned that my first true mentor, Jim Anderson, passed away on September 22, 2022 at the age of 94. It was my intention to honor him while he was still among the living, but I did not make that enough of a priority. That oversight in no way reflects what a powerful and positive influence he was on my life, and the lives of so many others.

Jim Anderson at 82 years young

I am reasonably certain that my mother was the one who took the initiative in connecting me to Jim. She was a veteran in the television and radio industry, and at the time I first met Jim he was doing a local show on nature for Oregon Public Broadcasting. I seem to recall that our initial meeting was in his studio, in fact.

Concurrently, Jim was employed as an educator with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). From there, he became director of the Children’s Zoo and conservation and education programs at what was then the Portland Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo in Washington Park).

Jim introduced me to other biologists and naturalists, too, including Mike Houck, who went on to become the Urban Naturalist for the Audubon Society of Portland. Jim and Mike did programs at OMSI field stations and camps, which I had the privilege of visiting periodically on weekends.

The Nature Conservancy hired Jim to manage its Ramsey Canyon Preserve in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona for three years, but Jim and his wife Sue returned to his beloved Oregon to run the nature center at Sunriver resort south of Bend in the early 1970s. It was there that I caught up with him again. Had my late mother not been so overprotective, I might have spent time with him exploring lava tube caves, or maybe even assisting in banding raptors.

Myself and Jim at Sunriver in August, 1971

Eagles, hawks, and owls were always the center of Jim’s wild universe. He even flew with them, in a manner of speaking. He got a commercial pilot license, and was an accomplished pilot of glider planes. He even instructed student glider pilots.

Among Jim’s enduring menagerie of animals was “Owl,” a Great Horned Owl that had lost an eye. Remarkably, the bird regenerated the eye and, after several years of behavioral rehabilitation, Jim released “Owl” with great fanfare at Sunriver. Owl was immediately harassed by an American Kestrel, such is the drama of nature.

Jim surveyed and banded birds of prey in central Oregon for over fifty years, the last decade or so with the company of his wife, Sue. She wisely insisted that climbing cliffs and trees was too dangerous for someone in his eighties, and Jim begrudgingly retired.

One of the milestones I am most proud of is when I was first published in Ranger Rick magazine, because I had grown up reading Jim’s articles in that publication. He wrote consistently, for many periodicals, and had a column in The Nugget Newspaper of Sisters, Oregon. He also appeared regularly in The Source Weekly of nearby Bend, Oregon. Jim was an outstanding photographer, too, and most of his articles included his images. He compiled his most memorable and hilarious stories in Tales from a Northwest Naturalist, published in 1992.

Everything came full circle for me when Jim agreed to be best man at my wedding to Heidi, on April 29, 2012. A few years later we saw Jim for the last time at his home in Sisters. I had the privilege of introducing another young man, and his then girlfriend (now marital partner), at that time. The couple lived in Bend, and I hope they were able to visit with Jim and Sue again before Jim and Sue moved to Eugene, Oregon to be closer to their children.

Jim, myself, and my mother at my wedding

Being an only child, I had a difficult time socializing with my peers. It was with adults that I felt most comfortable, but Jim nudged me to expand the boundaries of my comfort zone. He was always patient and encouraging, but also insistent, especially when it came to my education. I am glad I still have a few years left, hopefully, to become an even better human being, and a less hesitant one when opportunities present themselves.

Jim's photo of Heidi and I

From what I hear from Sue, I am one of many disciples of Jim. His enthusiasm was contagious, his breadth of knowledge and interests seemingly boundless (did I mention he sang in church choirs?), and his self-reliance admirable. There was no machine he could not repair with bailing wire. He had an old-fashioned wit and sense of humor, and a genuine love and appreciation for all of those he invested his time and counsel in. They do not make men like him very often nowadays. Rest in peace, Jim, you deserve eternal joy and love.