Sunday, April 21, 2024

Book Review: Insectorama

One of the benefits of having written one or more books is that as an author you are then presented with opportunities to review proposals, manuscripts, and published books by other writers in your realm of expertise. The most recent book to cross my desk in this way is Insectorama: The Marvelous World of Insects, by Lisa Voisard. I could not be more favorably impressed.

Insectorama is promoted as a juvenile literature, and it won the JP Redouté Children’s Book Prize. It is a substantial work of 224 pages, suitable for adults, too. It is as close to a perfect introduction to insects, and their place in habitats, ecosystems, and human enterprise and culture, as I can imagine. The “North American edition” is what I received, a translation from the original French version featuring a European focus. The book is divided into three parts, beginning with a series of portraits of over eighty common insect species found in North America. The second part invites the reader to “Go on, take a closer look!” The third section presents several topics related to the life of insects, their enemies, why insects are disappearing, and how we can mitigate insect decline.

Voisard’s unique and stunning illustrations define the entire work. The renderings are bold and deceptively basic, without sacrificing much in the way of accuracy and detail. Food plants, prey, life cycles, and other context are presented, along with icons for the order the insect is classified under, the time of day the creature is active, and the habitat it occupies.

The only obvious mistake that I found was that the pupa stage, in every species depicted that has complete metamorphosis, was labeled as “nymph.” I suspect this is an error in translation from the French, not a fact-checking oversight. Entomologist Mathilde Gaudrea vetted the text, in fact, along with other experts.

The layout of the book remains its greatest strength. Every page, or every other page, is a different earthtone color, warm and inviting. The contrast with the insect depicted is therefore not stark and overwhelming. You are invited into the life of the creature, the flowers it visits, the aquatic realm it lives in, or the place it perches.

My admiration for this work extends to the marketing campaign surrounding it. I learned of the book from Izzy Krause at Myrick Marketing & Media, LLC, working for its client, Helvetiq Publishing, that produced this North American version. The blurb sheet was well done summary of the book and its mission to stimulate readers to view insects in a new and fascinating light.

By sheer coincidence, I am at work on a book that aims to achieve similar outcomes in recruiting new “bugwatchers,” and Insectorama helped me greatly by reminding me of approaches to observing insects that I have long since forgotten because they have become habit. I therefore recommend this book to science translators (science communicators, sci-comm people) as a good refresher when interacting with the public.

With so much sensationalized news, and misinformation about insects in this day and age, it is a delight to find a vehicle with a more subdued approach, that still manages to evoke fascination and excitement, wrapped in a little empathy for the tentative and squeamish among us. I hope it is a blueprint for future authors of natural history books.

Insectorama retails for under $30.00 U.S. It is hardbound, and weighty. I am also likely to consider other merchandise from Lisa Voisard.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

First Night of Blacklighting

Since I posted about my last night of blacklighting last year, it seems only fitting that I post about the first night of blacklighting this year. We had an unseasonably warm and humid night on March 31, 2024, so I put up a sheet and light in our fenced-in back yard here in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. The effort turned up a handful of nice moths, and a couple of surprises.

Birch Dagger moth

A lovely and surprising moth was a freshly-minted Birch Dagger moth, Acronicta betulae. It looked like the front wings were made of two layers. Striking! This is a widespread eastern U.S. species, but eastern Kansas is at the western fringe of its range. We also do not have any River Birch, the host tree for the caterpillar, to my knowledge, so perhaps it is feeding on a different tree here.

Intractable Quaker moth

Another kind of owlet moth in the family Noctuidae that showed up was the Intractable Quaker. Ok, who makes up these names? The caterpillar of this moth is more straightforward: Four-lined Green Fruitworm. The scientific name of the species is Kocakina fidelis, but known formerly as Himella fidelis. This is another early-appearing eastern North American moth. The caterpillar stage feeds mostly on the leaves of oak, elm, and flowering crabapple, but is also known from hickory and cherry.

Distinct Quaker moth

The final noctuid of the night was the Distinct Quaker, Achatia distincta. It is a spring species ranging mostly east of the Great Plains, but with scattered records farther west. The caterpillar is a generalist feeder on most common deciduous trees, plus grape.

An expected species was an owlet moth in the family Erebidae, the Forage Looper, Caenurgina erechtea. It is abundant here locally, but is common throughout the U.S. and Canada. Caterpillars feed on grasses, clover, and alfalfa. Walking through your lawn will flush these moths during the day, especially if it has beeen awhile since you mowed.

Common Gray moth(?) male

One geometer moth was tucked in a fold in the sheet: what I believe to be a Common Gray, Anavitrinella pampinaria. The lack of clear markings makes identification even more difficult than usual, but the early spring flight period is typical. This is another widespread species across the continent. The super-slender caterpillars (inchworms) are known to feed on clover, ash, elm, willow, pear, and apple.

Lucerne Moth

One moth of the family Crambidae flew to the edge of the sheet. The Lucerne Moth, Nomophila nearctica, is found nearly everywhere in North America, farther north in the west. Its narrow silhouette makes this moth one of the easiest to recognize. The caterpillars feed on a wide variety of grasses and sprawlilng legumes like clover and alfalfa.

Smaller moths were more common, including a single individual of the Red-banded Leafroller Moth, Argyrotaenia velutinana. This species of the family Tortricidae is common east of the Rocky Mountains, from Louisiana to Saskatchewan. There is hardly any foliage and fruit that is not on the menu for the caterpillar stage, and it is an occasional pest in apple orchards.

Unidentified tortricid moth
Maple Twig Borer Moth

A couple of other tortricids defy identification, and I am rusty at photography after the winter hiatus. Wait, one of them was confirmed as the Maple Twig Borer Moth, Proteoteras aesculana. As the name suggests, it occurs where maple trees are found, and the caterpillar stage tunnels in the twigs and petioles, and seeds of the host tree.

Twirler moth, genus Chinodes?

Finally, there was a solitary little twirler moth, family Gelechiidae, that I figure is one of the 190 North American species of Chinodes.

Ichneumon wasp, Ophion sp.

A bit surprising was the diversity of wasps present at the blacklight. Ichneumonid wasps in the genus Ophion are regular visitors, as they are nocturnal, but a beautiful Rhyssella nitida also showed up.

Ichneumon wasp, Rhyssella nitida

This is a diurnal insect. The female uses her long ovipositor to drill into logs and dead trees to reach the larva of its host, wood-wasps in the genus Xiphydria. She lays a single egg on the grub, and the larva that hatches feeds as an external parasitoid, eventually killing the wood-wasp larva.

Braconid wasp
Braconid wasp, Phanerotoma sp?
Braconid wasp

Wasps in the family Braconidae, closely related to ichneumons, also flew in. They are almost impossible to identify from images of living specimens, but their diversity and abundance is encouraging in an age of insect decline.

A particularly attractive non-biting midge, tribe Macropelopiini
Typical non-biting midge, tribe Chironomini

As expected, flies were the most diverse insects on the sheet. Non-biting midges in the family Chironomidae can be found almost year round. They are usually asssumed to be mosquitoes, and they are certainly mosquito-like in appearance, but totally harmless. Most live in aquatic habitats in the larval stage, where they are usually scavengers.

One of the larger gall midges I've seen

Early spring is the time for gall midges in the family Cecidomyiidae. These small, delicate flies are recognized in part by the reduced number of veins in their wings, and their usually long antennae. They are tiny enough that they can account for the most commonly found insects indoors, accumulating in light fixtures and on windowsills.

Fungus gnat

Fungus gnats are also springtime flies, of the family Mycetophilidae. They look like mosquitoes, too, but their legs usually sport long spines, at least at the tip of the tibia segment. The larvae of many species occur in mushrooms, and are identified by their black heads. The adults of some species pollinate the flowers of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, but frequently die after becoming trapped in the corolla.

Leaf miner fly, Cerodontha sp.

More obviously fly-like were little leaf miner flies, in the genus Cerodontha, family Agromyzidae. Their larvae bore between the layers of grassblades, and leaves of sedges and rushes. We have both grasses and sedges in our back yard, so that tracks. Identifying insects is often a matter of putting different clues together and seeing what shakes out.

Shiny Blue Blow Fly, Cynomya cadaverina

A big, bumbling blow fly bounced around the light, too, and it was difficult to get an image of it. I think it was a Cynomya cadaverina. No dead bodies in the backyard, so its presence is a mystery.

Birch Catkin Bug

The other mystery was the appearance of a Birch Catkin Bug, Kleidocerys resedae, a tiny member of the seed bug family Lygaeidae. As in the case of the Birch Dagger Moth, the absence of birch trees raises questions about what these bugs are eating.

All thirty insects that I documented can be found on iNaturalist here. It has been windy and cooler this last week, so I'm not sure when I'll put the light out again, but I look forward to doing so. Weather permitting, I will at least try again during the City Nature Challenge, April 26-29. Check and see if your town is registered for the event. Happy bugwatching to you in any event.