Sunday, December 17, 2023

Book Review: Flower Bugs

I must preface this review by stating that the author, Angella Moorehouse, and publisher, Heather Holm, are personal friends. That is not why I am conflicted in my reaction to this book. Neither is it because I view this book as being in competition with any of my own works. We cannot have enough literature devoted to promoting public understanding and appreciation of insects. It boils down in part to my own biases and expectations. With that, you will still receive an honest appraisal.

Pollination Press, LLC produces plant-based books about insects, usually restricted to a particular geographic region. Holm's comfort zone is clearly in botany, though her prior books about bees and wasps, as they relate to flowering plants, demonstrate a command of general entomological knowledge, and dedication to thorough research. There is no question that her books deliver accurate, factual information. From my perspective, as an entomologist with little familiarity or interest in plants, I immediately see what is "missing" in terms of species, even families, because those insects are not associated with forbs.

There is a desperate need for more books that illustrate the ecological networks of different organisms, but Flower Bugs: A Guide to Flower-Associated True Bugs of the Midwest is limited to the flowers of herbaceous flowering plants, and almost exclusively those true bugs that may play a role in pollination, or those species that frequent flowers as a place to ambush other pollinators. The territory covered is eight states (Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, Indian, and Ohio), and adjacent southern Ontario, Canada. The book is in fact based mostly on a detailed survey of locations in western and central Illinois, over a period of seven years.

The true bugs treated are further restricted to the suborder Heteroptera, which includes the larger, more obvious examples like stink bugs, assassin bugs, mirid plant bugs, and seed bugs, but leaves out the families of aquatic bugs, plus the other two suborders that include cicadas, leafhoppers, spittlebugs, and aphids. All of these specifics are stated explicitly in the introduction of the book.

The layout of Flower Bugs includes the trademark features of Pollination Press' other books: prolific and quality imagery, geographic range maps, seasonal distribution bars showing what months the adult insect is present, tables of plant species associated with each insect species addressed, diagrams of taxonomic relationships, a glossary, checklists, and a visual index.

The front matter of the book is, as usual for this press, presented to near perfection in degree of detail, and coverage of morphology and ecology. It is an excellent introduction to true bugs as a whole, for the intended audience of native plant gardeners, naturalists, resource management personnel, and others.

The species accounts cover the overall geographic range, variation in physical appearance, life cycle, feeding, habitat, and native plant associations. The images are occasionally redundant, but frequently include photos of the immature stages, which most field guides fail to do. In cases of the mirid plant bugs, assassin bugs, and other families for which there are few flower associates, there are photos of other species for comparison, and to better indicate the full diversity of these groups. Given the lack of any other contemporary guides to true bugs, this gesture is appreciated.

The last book to cover the true bugs for a popular audience was probably Bugs of the World, by George C. McGavin, published in 1993 and 1999 by Blandford, an imprint of Cassell, in London. Back then, the true bugs were classified much differently. In 1978, How to Know the True Bugs, by James A. Slater and Richard M. Baranowski, was published by Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers in Dubuque, Iowa, as part of their "Pictured Key Nature Series." That reference also covered the suborder Heteroptera, but assumed the user had a pinned specimen and a microscope at hand.

The fact that Flower Bugs is the most up-to-date popular reference to North American Heteroptera, no matter how limited the scope, is enough to recommend it. You will no doubt find yourself stalking the true bugs in your own yard, neighborhood park, or other favorite habitat. You can be confident that this book will provide you with an accurate ecological perspective, and interpretation of the behaviors of these insects.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Last Night to Blacklight?

A green mantisfly (left) and a leafhopper parade across the top of the sheet behind our blacklight at night.

Back on October 23, 2023, we had an abnormally warm day of 86℉. I took advantage of this to put out a blacklight, in front of a white sheet, on our back yard fence that night. Because of insect decline, and the role of light pollution in driving down the survival and reproductive rates of insects, I try and blacklight less frequently these days. Never mind that the federal penitentiary, located two blocks behind our house, is lit up like Las Vegas every night. I consider it something of a miracle that we are able to draw any insects to our dim illumination devices, but we get a surprising diversity. This night was no different, despite being so deep into autumn.

Japanese Maple Leafhopper

One wonderful aspect of putting out a blacklight at this time of year is that we are not inundated with huge numbers of caddisflies, as we often are, especially in late spring. Instead, fall is the season of true bugs (order Hemiptera), lacewings and their allies (Neuroptera), flies (Diptera), select late-season moths (Lepidoptera), and a few beetles (Coleoptera).

Trumpet Vine Moth

Indeed, during daylight hours in late October, the air is positively thick with aphids and tiny leafhoppers, and buzzing with the drone of larger bugs like stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs. Many of these true bugs overwinter as adults, and are seeking places to shelter through the cold months. Some species of aphids move to alternate hosts for the winter, and so have winged individuals for dispersal to those plants. It has been windy, though, and even wingless aphids have been blown everywhere. Our fence is crawling with them, even as I write this on November fourth.

Mirid plant bug, Hyaliodes sp.

Leafhoppers are among the most speciose of insects in our yard, as both resident insects and "fly-by" individuals for which we have no host plants to support them. Most of that diversity occurs under five millimeters in body length. A two- or three-millimeter leafhopper can still be surprisingly colorful, though.

Leafhopper, Erythridula sp.

Leafhopper, Norvellina helenae

Leafhopper, Gyponana sp.

Leafhopper, Gyponana gladia?

Red-banded Leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea

Planthoppers representing several families were also present at our light, some a little bit worn.

Delphacid planthopper, Liburniella ornata

Northern Flatid Planthopper, Flatormenis proxima

Derbit planthopper, Otiocerus stolli

We had three different species of mantidflies, also known as mantispids, at the lights. They are predatory and readily stalk smaller insects drawn to our light source. Their more familiar kin, green lacewings and brown lacewings, were present, too. Green lacewings are frequently brown, or reddish, at this time of year, and also overwinter in the adult stage.

Mantidfly, Dicromantispa interrupta

Green Mantidfly, Zeugomantispa minuta

Mantidfly, Dicromantispa sayi

Green lacewing, Chrysoperla sp.

Flies are ever-present, with blow flies spending the winter as adults hidden under the siding of your house, and in other snug cavities. Syrphid flies were still visiting the aster flowers in our neighborhood during the day. What came to the light, however, were long-legged flies, tachinid flies, and pomace flies.

Marsh fly, Dictya sp.

Unidentified tachinid fly

Unidentified long-legged fly

Black scavenger fly, Sepsis sp.

Mating pair of leafminer flies, family Agromyzidae

Moths are what entomologists typically deploy blaclights for, and of course there were some of those, too. Some species appear only during the fall, and/or the winter, so it pays to keep the blacklights handy for the odd warm evenings. Owlet moths, geometer moths, and grass veneers are among the usual suspects, but look for much smaller moths, too.

Green Cutworm Moth, Anicla infecta

Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Atteva aurea

Corn Earworm Moth, Helicoverpa zea

Ipsilon Dart, Agrotis ipsilon

Juniper-twig Geometer, Patalene olyzonaria, I believe.

Grateful Midget, Elaphria grata

Oh, I almost forgot about barklice (order Psocodea). Three species showed up on October twenty-third, probably representing three different families. Barklice are easily mistaken for planthoppers, or even tiny moths, but they have chewing mouthparts instead of a beak or a proboscis.

Common barklouse, Indiopsocus sp.

Narrow barklouse, Graphopsocus cruciatus

Common barklouse, Trichadenotecnum alexanderae species complex

Beetles that showed up included several species of ground beetles (Carabidae), small dung beetles (Scarabaeidae), and lady beetles (Coccinellidae), along with representatives of less familiar families.

Vivid metallic grouond beetle, Chlaenius tricolor

Colorful foliage ground beetle, Lebia vittata

20-spotted Lady Beetle, Psyllobora vigintimaculata

Antlike flower beetle, Notoxus sp.

Silken fungus beetle, family Cryptophagidae.

More warm days are in the forecast for next week, so I may at least flip the front porch light on and check for insect guests. Even the vague warmth of the blacklight results in substantial carnage, with smaller, frail insects perishing from the heat, so that is another reason to use the apparatus sparingly. It is still a great tool, however, for evaluating insect variety and density. More on light pollution to come, in a later post.

Aphid, Drepanaphis sp.

Note: Here is the link to all of the arthropods observed on this date on iNaturalist.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Bug Fair 2023 Recap

I had not attended the annual Bug Fair at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (California) since about 2011, so I was overdue in seeing old friends and making new ones. Heidi and I had a wonderful time, and stayed in the area for the week afterwards to enjoy some of the natural areas in the greater Los Angeles region, as well as spend time socializing. The fair itself is a major event, one that regularly sets museum attendance records for the year. During the global pandemic, there was no Bug Fair until 2022, and even then it was a scaled-down version. This year it was back to full strength.

My table at the Bug Fair

Bug Fair happens the weekend before the Memorial Day weekend every year, and takes over two halls, plus the rotunda, and various outdoor extensions of the museum. It includes vendors of entomological supplies, live specimens, and preserved specimens. Many organizations and government agencies have tables as well, and there are a fair number of artists. I was the only author with a dedicated table.

Monarch Art, if I recall correctly
BioQuip Bugs, which was purchased when BioQuip folded
Greg Lewallen's booth
Micro Wilderness live insects and arachnids
We were next to a vendor selling carnivorous plants
The museum rotunda featured some educational exhibits
UC Riverside booth in the rotunda
Beetlelady's table display
Outside, on the back patio, museum personnel dressed as bugs played music for lunching guests

Lisa Gonzalez, one of my friends from prior Bug Fairs, is now the Program Manager of Invertebrates. Among her multiple talents is macro photography. Her images of museum specimens, taken with a focus stacking camera apparaatus, were on exhibit during the fair. I love that the interpretive text was in both English and Spanish.

I grossly underestimated the enduring popularity of the printed word, and sold out of some of my books the first day. The following day, we were taking prepaid orders and promising free shipping. I will know better next time, but when that will be is anyone's guess. I am currently working on another book, for which I do not yet have a publisher. An agent is reviewing the proposal, and hopefully we can begin shopping it around to various houses in the near future.

What do you do after a long day at the Bug Fair? Enjoy dinner out with Beetlelady, of course.

It was rejuvenating to see old friends like the Beetlelady, Dr. Stephanie Dole, who has built a pop-up insect museum she deploys at various venues upstate. She is also a gifted artist, cosplay enthusiast, and mother to two wonderful children.

Business cards I collected during the fair

I would highly recommend Bug Fair as an event worth planning a vacation around. The greater Los Angeles region has a surprising number of parks with unique flora and fauna, a perfect complement to the exotic specimens to be found at the fair. There are plenty of cultural experiences, too. Shoot, I'd go back for the churro cart in Long Beach alone.