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.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Spooders and Noodles

Recently, I asked my friends on a social media platform to express their opinions on the trend of anthropomorphism as applied to traditionally uncharismatic fauna such as spiders (“spooders”) and snakes (“noodles”). The topic received over one hundred comments, with few people commenting more than once. The responses were all over the map, including some uncharted places in my own mind when I decided to ask the question. Here is my loose appraisal of the landscape.

"Spooder," more properly known as the jumping spider Phidippus putnami

Overall, one’s personal stance on anthropomorphism and use of “cutesy names” fell into three broad camps:

  • Acceptable, if not totally embraceable.
  • At least tolerable, with qualifications.
  • Utterly contemptible.

Those who held a view that anthropomorphism is acceptable seemed to be people who connect to animals in an emotional way, pet owners, and empathetic individuals who may have only a casual interest in wildlife.

The view that anthropomorphism is at least tolerable, but with defined caveats, was most frequently evident in people whom I know to be science communicators. Sci-comm professionals (and amateurs for that matter) deal with both the scientific community and the general public, serving as a diplomatic bridge between the two.

The individuals who responded negatively to the idea of anthropomorphism were overwhelmingly professional scientists, though it is even more telling that few of my scientist friends bothered responding at all.

A colorful "noodle" (milksnake)

Many comments in the thread sparked by my post were highly specific, and we would do well to visit these viewpoints to illuminate the future direction of sci-comm, and improve relations between the scientific community and the general public.

  • Several responses indicated that endearing or comical names for creatures that most of the population considers scary or repulsive were fine, provided that those epithets painted the animal in a positive light. For instance, “noodle” is fine for a snake, but “danger noodle” or “nope rope” was not ok. Those names suggest that the organism warrants disrespect, if not lethal dispatching.
  • Some respondents on the phobia end of the spectrum have found that assigning a name to an individual spider or other creature inhabiting their home, yard, or garden, made the creature less frightening. It is harder to kill, or even hate, “Fred” or “Bertha” than a nameless arachnid.
  • At least one respondent indicated that cutesy names were for plush toys, not the real, living creature. This is interesting, if only because “Lucas the Spider,” an animated plush character created by Joshua Slice, became incredibly popular for a time, between 2017 and 2021. There was a total of thirty-two episodes on YouTube, in fact. Lucas remains a great ambassador for jumping spiders, at least.
  • Several people expressed reservations about the unintended consequences of anthropomorphism, such as turning some species into villains (“nope rope” again), or drawing too much focus to one species while neglecting others (the “Panda Effect?”).
  • A number of people strayed slightly off topic and expressed dismay at the use of the term “bug” for all insects. This included may well-educated non-entomologists who appear to have adopted a stricter scientific view.
  • Turning the “stranger” into the “familiar” seems to be at the heart of many anthropomorphic tendencies.
  • Names that spread disinformation were resoundingly condemned. “Skeeter eater” for harmless crane flies that do not eat anything, let alone mosquitoes, was one example. Using “babies” to indicate small (or “smol”) adult insects is another deal-breaker for those who know otherwise.
  • The most objectionable result of anthropomorphism occurs when emotional attachment or assignment results in irresponsible behavior. An example might be taking an animal out of the wild because it appears to be abandoned by its parent, herd, or flock. You truly can love an animal to death.
  • Giving a pet name to an individual animal, or to a species or category risks devaluing other life forms. This even carries over into human social interaction in the workplace and other settings.
  • On the other hand, assigning a pet name can translate to improved care of, and reverence for, that individual or species.
  • Extra-cute names like “spooder” inappropriately infantilize organisms. It reinforces existing tendencies to find the most human-like faces in baby animals as the most deserving of positive sentiment, leaving all others out in the proverbial cold.
  • The use of novel names may not be the same thing as anthropomorphism. It represents the evolution of language, especially in the digital age. Introverts, the neurodivergent, and others who lacked the anonymous outlet of the internet in previous generations, are now able to contribute a new perspective. That should not be threatening to those of us who grew up with “rules” of grammar and spelling. Accepting these changes is the healthier path for both human society and the other species we share the planet with.
  • Ideally, acceptance and appreciation of other species should not hinge on the introduction of an endearing moniker, but if it helps change attitudes, then what is the harm? There has been, and continues to be, too much of a kill-it-now, ask-questions-later attitude among the general public.
  • Taking a hard line against affectionate expressions risks alienating entire generations of currently young people who could otherwise be the most effective influencers for positive behaviors and views related to the rest of the animal kingdom. You appear elitist, sitting in your academic ivory tower, trying to preserve your privilege and power, demanding that everyone relate to other species on your (scientific) terms, literally and figuratively.
  • ”Anthropomorphism is generally more helpful than Anthropocentrism. I think it’s better to project our understanding of our own existence onto creatures than to treat them like they’re inanimate objects. Our perspectives will always be biased and imperfect through our own eyes, even through a scientific lens.”
  • Use of cute names and anthropomorphism should be done judiciously by science communicators and scientists. Much depends on the audience and the setting. Students in a classroom are expected to be taught, and to learn, proper terminology. With a casual audience, it might be more helpful to achieve connection through the language those people are using, instead of immediately imposing scientific convention. The intent should always be to advance appreciation and understanding.
  • ”I didn’t chastise/degrade/make fun of my coworker who named her yard-Argiope “Big Booty Bertha.” I loved it! She went from a wreck-the-vehicle kinda person (over spiders) to nicknaming one in her yard. I’ll take it as a huge win….I fully believe your audience may need some anthropomorphism to begin the journey of gaining helpful knowledge.”
  • ”From a conservation….perspective, it gets people ‘in the door,’ so to speak….In regards to jumping spiders, it’s amazing how many people have gone from ‘kill it with fire’ to ‘Aww, jumpy boi!’ just in the last few years. Even if this generation doesn’t become entomologists or arachnologists, their children will be more inclined to due to the change in perceptions.”
  • ”I also make the animals relatable (ex: describing a wolf spider with young on her back as a hard-working momma who has several hundred mouths to feed). Treading lightly, you can connect with audiences on even the most hated creatures.”
  • ”I am in support of using them playfully, but prefer that it’s kept to banter and meme pages and to raise awareness and create a good image.”
  • ”Danger noodle” can be an opportunity for a teachable moment, especially if someone in the audience uses the term.
  • ”As the reptile and invertebrate [pet] hobby becomes more mainstream, this [trend in novel names and anthropomorphism] will also become more mainstream.”
  • ”We fear what we don’t understand. If giving an animal a name that appropriately promotes curiosity or endearment happens, great. Then we’re a step closer to being able to educate about the animal’s behavior, benefits, perspective. If that name promotes more fear, revulsion, or misunderstandings, then we’re doing it all wrong.”
  • "I guess in the end, for me, it’s a matter of adapting my filter to my intended audience. As others have also mentioned here, I see the intent, and value, in using ‘cute’ names when attempting, for example, to help a friend reconcile their distaste for certain critters. I also, in these circumstances, offer educational and fun/trivial facts to blend the informal with the formal….And if calling a spider a ‘spood’ helps initially disarm them, which in turn results in their being a more receptive audience for additional information, that’s a win.”
  • ”I refer to the colony of great golden digger wasps [in my yard] as the ‘Golden Girls.’…Anything to make them less scary to people.”
  • ”In my educational communication I like to mix some of the newer cutesy vernacular with descriptive terms, common names, and scientific names – often all in the same piece. My goal….is to provide a point of connection for a diverse audience, sure, but also to enhance storytelling.”
  • I think our fear of anthropomorphizing creatures stems from our anthropocentrism….We are such a strange species in our great interest in setting ourselves apart from (and above) other species, and I think we do our planet a disservice each time we do so.”
  • ”Anthropomorphism has been a part of Indigenous cultures for centuries and builds respect and understanding for all living things, establishing animals as family members or revered elders.”

Hard-working wolf spider momma

The one thing that does strike me, that was not overtly acknowledged, is the impact of novel language and anthropomorphism on interactions between people. One respondent used the term “pedestrian audience.” I know what they meant, but my first thought was that this was condescending and not helpful. We are never going to get anywhere in advancing scientific literacy if we invalidate the standing of others, reduce them to an amorphous, dismissible group, or ignore their personal experiences.

Shoot, we have to be honest with ourselves, and where we are at, where we are coming from. It might not be pretty, and that is ok. My own affinity for “unlovable” animals definitely stemmed initially from feelings of disconnection from my peers as an elementary school student. Our first priority as scientific communicators, maybe communicators in general, should probably be to listen to people who are not like us, to assert that our conversations are in a safe space, and that their experiential reality is valid.

Your comments are welcome here. Whether I reply to them or not often depends on the temperament of my browser in allowing me to do so. That said, understand that I try to approve comments in a timely manner, rarely censor any but spam advertising and profanity, and recognize and appreciate your importance in advancing the dialogue.

Friday, March 1, 2024

How We Can Stop Hating Wasps

Recent studies have shown that wasps are among the most loathed of all insects. Consequently, much time and money is wasted on trying to eradicate them, especially by homeowners. Let’s consider why we have the attitudes we do, and how we can achieve coexistence with wasps.

A trio of Western Yellowjakcet workers dispatches a pest caterpillar.

Why do we hate wasps?

There are three main reasons wasps evoke fear and loathing.

  • The sting. Females of some species can inflict painful stings on us tender humans. This is occasionally for self-defense, but mostly in defense of a nest full of immobile and otherwise vulnerable eggs, larvae, and pupae inside a nest. Only social wasps will bother us this way.
  • Narrow definition of “wasp.” Most people equate the word “wasp” with “hornet,” “yellowjacket,” or “paper wasp.” All of these are social wasps, the ones most abundant in urban and suburban settings, and by far the ones we have the most negative encounters with. Some people recognize other kinds of wasps, particularly mud daubers, but consider their nests unsightly, a nuisance, or a potential threat. In reality, the overwhelming majority of wasps are solitary, like mud daubers, each female making her own nest, or using a host animal or plant in situ. Most wasps cannot sting people. Many cannot sting at all. Most are tiny, only ten millimeters or less in length.
  • Social wasps exploit our habits and weaknesses. Yellowjackets (including the Bald-faced “Hornet,” and paper wasps make their nests in and around our homes and buildings. This is because our architecture mimics the cliff faces, rock overhangs, and natural hollows where they nest “in the wild.” A few yellowjacket species are scavengers, and your barbecue or picnic resembles an abandoned animal carcass that can be exploited. The wasps take protein matter back to the nest to feed their growing larval siblings. Meanwhile, your open soda or beer container offers sugary carbohydrates the adult wasps need to fuel their flight muscles. We like to think we are masters of our domain, or at least our private property, and wasps defy that desire with maddening efficiency.

Most wasps, like this "fairyfly," are tiny, solitary, and don't sting people.

Benefits of Tolerating Wasps

Positive outcomes from tolerating wasps, or even accommodating them, far outweigh any perceived benefits of eradication or control, excepting rare cases where you or another family member has hypersensitivity to insect venom, and there is demonstrable risk of a life-threatening incident.

  • Saving money on products or services. This point is seldom made when arguing against the use of DIY pest control products, or the employment of professional pest control services, but it can be of profound financial consideration. Prevention is easier and more effective. More on that in a moment.
  • Wasps are a pest control service. Most social wasps, even those that scavenge occasionally, are predatory on insects that are problematic in our yards, gardens, barns, and sheds. Solitary wasps are parasitoids of even more species that can be truly pestiferous. Among the hosts for wasps are caterpillars that eat garden plants, aphids that suck plant sap, flies that can potentially spread bacteria, cockroaches both outdoors and indoors, and spiders. There is scarcely any terrestrial arthropod that is not host to at least one wasp species.
  • Wasps are pollinators. Technically, most wasps are “flower visitors,” coming to blossoms for nectar to fuel their flight muscles. They still effect pollination services, and there are some species in western North America that are obligate pollinators of certain wildflowers.
  • Wasps dispose of animal carcasses. Those scavenging yellowjackets make quick work of the remains of small animal carcasses that vultures and other vertebrate scavengers ignore or cannot find. This prevents the accumulation of decaying animal matter, lessens risks to human health from problematic bacteria, and prevents explosions of filth flies that would otherwise use those dead animal resources.
  • Wasps are a source of fascination and intrigue. Wasps can be easily and safely observed as they go about their activities of host-seeking, flower-visiting, and nest-making. You will be surprised by how many wasp species are living in obscurity in your yard and garden. Watching them will reveal amazing relationships with many other organisms.

Paper wasp nests can be safely observed and offer hours of fascination.

How do we get along?

We can prevent most negative encounters with wasps by taking a few precautions. It will literally save you physical pain and financial discomfort.

  • Learn wasp body language. Paper wasps, the ones that make uncovered paper combs under eaves, in door and window frames, and elsewhere, are usually amicable neighbors. If you do approach a nest too closely, one or more wasps will stand on tiptoe and flare their wings. This means “back off.” You risk being stung if you ignore that warning.
  • Inspect your yard regularly. Too often, underground yellowjacket nests, or those above ground, hidden in shrubs or rock walls, are not discovered until the lawnmower runs over one, or the hedge trimmer triggers an attack. Inspect your property thoroughly, including playground equipment, before using tools, or otherwise causing any strong vibration in the vicinity of a social wasp nest. It may take a little patience and keen observation to note the streams of wasps coming and going regularly from a specific location. Your kids may see them before you do.
  • Serve beverages outdoors in clear glass or plastic.
  • Unattended beverages that are sweet or fermented will attract yellowjackets and other wasps that may crawl inside the container. Cans and opaque bottles mean that you will not notice a wasp inside. A sting to the tongue or throat can be a life-threatening experience regardless of whether you are allergic to stings.
  • Cover food served outdoors. When not serving yourself or others, cover meats and sweets at the outdoor gathering. You can also set out a small, exposed plate of meat a good distance away from the serving table, to draw yellowjackets away.
  • Seal cracks and crevices. To prevent wasps from nesting indoors, or seeking shelter in the winter, seal cracks and crevices. Mend holes in, or replace, window screens. Screen the attic vent with fine mesh. Replace worn weatherstripping around doors. This will help save on heating and cooling costs, too.
  • Learn to recognize solitary wasps. Many wasps that are solitary may behave as if they are social. A large number of wasps flying low over your lawn are likely male wasps looking for females that have yet to emerge from the ground. An ominous gathering of iridescent blue mud daubers in a door frame at dusk means that males are bedding down for the night in a large group. Male wasps do not sting. Cicada killers are huge wasps, but solitary. Females may nest close together, making them appear social. Males keep watch over them and may fly “aggressively” to chase away any and all intruders. It is all bluff.

More information about wasps can be found in this blog, in my book Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, and elsewhere. Online, the most reliable sources remain college, university, and museum websites with a “.edu” or “.org” suffix in the URL. Thank you in advance for sharing a link to this post in social media, neighborhood groups, and other outlets.

A solitary thread-waisted wasp with a caterpillar she stung into paralysis. It will be food for her single larval offspring at the bottom of an underground burrow.

Sources: Schmack, Juila M., Monika Egerer, Susan Karlebowski, Astrid E. Neumann, and Ulrike Sturm. 2024. “Overlooked and misunderstood: how urban community gardeners perceive social wasps and their ecosystem functions,” Journal of Insect Conservation.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

"Bird Food"

Recently, in certain circles, insects have come to be defined as “bird food.” I was going to devote this post to describing why this is offensive, because it is, but it also occurred to me how hilarious this is, because it is that, too. Let us begin.

Western Meadowlark with sphinx moth caterpillar

The first question that may come to mind is, “What is not bird food?” Like pretty much all animals, birds need protein matter to grow, and fats and carbohydrates to burn for energy. Berries, seeds, insects, and small vertebrates are all on the menu for at least some birds. There is obviously the need for resource partitioning among them all in any given habitat or ecosystem.

Spiders. Insects are spider food, but we do not want to bring those arachnids center stage, because they are even more revolting than “bugs.”

Heck, back in the day, we were probably bird food. Some five hundred years ago, the now-extinct Haas Eagle, known in legends of the Maori as te Hokioi or Pouakai, is thought to have been capable of killing human children. It was a real bird, but there are obviously no firsthand accounts of its predatory behavior. At least we did not encounter the giant, flightless “terror birds,” members of the long-extinct family Phorusrhacidae, which ruled parts of modern-day South America during the Cenozoic era, pre-dating humans by a wide margin.

Turkey Vultures

According to the old cinematic and television westerns, dead people were frequently bird food. If old Festus hadn’t been seen for a while, the other cowboys would go looking for him. The next camera shot would be of vultures wheeling high above, and you knew that, sadly, they had found him. Today, we understand that vultures circling overhead means they are riding thermal updrafts. If they start descending, you know that they spotted poor Skippy.

Furthermore, insects are food for nearly every other organism. They are, arguably, more important to bats than birds. More important to anteaters, the aardvark, aardwolf, certain bears, marmosets….You get the picture, it is a complex network. Spiders. Insects are spider food, but we do not want to bring those arachnids center stage, because they are even more revolting than “bugs.” Please.

A crab spider female, Misumena vatia, with an arctic butterfly, Oenis sp.

The basic message I am sending is that to single out insects in particular as “bird food” is silly at best, and misleading at worst. Framing insects as bird food is, however, easily converted into memes, and other over-simplified media services. We are doing the natural world a disservice by dumbing-down its complexities, and certainly by turning other organisms into one-dimensional entities. We do not approve when other humans are racially-profiled, stereotyped, and pigeon-holed. Right?

Whatever it is that birds do for you, in visceral and emotional terms, is what insects do for me.

I get it. The bird food message is an attempt to convince homeowners and gardeners to landscape with native plants to feed the caterpillars and other insects that in turn feed the birds. That works on those who already understand the way nature works. Most people do not. Will they tolerate insects more now because “my [bugs] bring all the [birds] to the yard*?” Maybe, but not likely, and any necessary application nuances for their particular biome will be lost on them.

A much better message would be one lodged in economics. The average household can save an enormous amount of money in maintenance, and possibly water use, by replacing lawnscapes and ornamental plants with native grasses, forbs, shrubs, trees, and vines. Everyone can comprehend that dispensing with the mower, fuel or electricity for it, and expenditures on fertilizers and pesticides is a “win” for their pocketbook as well as the planet.

Chipping Sparrow and queen Western Yellowjacket

The overriding problem, from my perspective, is that categorizing insects as bird food demeans any other human interest in insects. It prioritizes “your birds” over “my insects.” That air of superiority is what is offensive. Whatever it is that birds do for you, in visceral and emotional terms, is what insects do for me. Please understand that, and respect that my passion for insects is no less admirable and valid than your enjoyment of birding.

* Modification of the lyric “milkshakes bring all the boys to the yard,” from “Milkshake,” a song by Kelis.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Hibiscus Scentless Plant Bug Life Cycle

It is a rare occasion when I am able to document all life stages of an insect species, let alone in the same location, or over a period of a couple of days. That is what happened, though, when I photographed a population of a scentless plant bug, Niesthrea louisianica, sometimes called the Hibiscus Scentless Plant Bug. Indeed, hibiscus and related plants in the family Malvaceae are their hosts. Our saga takes place in Okawville, Illinois, USA, in October of 2023.

While exploring the yard at my sister-in-law's home, I happened to notice adults and nymphs of this insect on buds of what I learned later was the plant known as Rose-of-Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus. Even the adults are not very large, measuring only 6.5-8.5 millimeters in body length. They are noticeable because they are so brilliantly colored in orange and red, with legs annulated (banded) in black and white. Niesthrea louisianica is a mostly southern U.S. species, but ranges from New York to Florida, and west to Iowa, Texas, Arizona, Utah, and California.

Apparently it is not unusual to find all stages in the life cycle at the end of the plant's growing season, and the adult insects overwinter anyway. Females can live about two months, males roughly fifty days. There can be at least three or four generations per year in southern latitudes, fewer farther north. Females deposit eggs in small batches, up to 36 in number, on the underside of leaves, beneath the bracts of the flower buds, or on the seed heads. One female can lay up to seven hundred eggs in her lifetime. I spotted a couple of egg clusters, one being guarded, presumably by the female that laid them.

The first instar nymphs that emerge from the eggs are so tiny! This species goes through five instars, an instar being the interval between molts. Like all true bugs, metamorphosis is "simple," each instar incrementally larger than the last, with the final molt to adulthood resulting, in this case, in a winged, sexually-mature individual. All life stages feed on the flower buds and seeds of the host plant, inserting the stylets of their rostrum to reach the interior fluids and tissues.

The activity period of the Hibiscus Scentless Plant Bug differs with latitude, but the life cycle begins in April or May, when the overwintered females lay eggs. It concludes with the end of the growing season, in October or even later.

One interesting aspect of Niesthrea louisianica is its potential role in controlling a problematic plant called Velvetleaf, Abutilon theophrasti. The bugs can carry pathogenic fungi in the genera Fusarium and Alternaria, which ride on the insects and infect the seeds of the plant, weakened from the feeding activities of the insect.

The "scentless plant bug" moniker may not apply in the case of the Hibiscus Scentless Plant Bug. They possess metathoracic glands, and a single dorsal abdominal gland, that produce copious amounts of exocrine chemicals for self-defense. Not that this deters spiders, one of their chief enemies, nor does it prevent parasitoid tachind flies, genus Leucostoma, from attacking the adult bugs. Scelionid wasps, genus Telenomus, exact a toll as parasitoids of the bug's eggs.

This is one of those species that fits the entomological addage of "Once you see one, you will see them everywhere." They are "locally abundant," like many host-specific phytophagous (plant-feeding) insects. They will not be on every plant because the defensive chemicals of the host plant vary from one individual plant to the next. Be on the lookout for them in Ohio, Indiana, and northern states currently out of their accepted range. Climate change may be driving a northerly range expansion.

A pair of less colorful specimens from Cape May, New Jersey, September, 2017

Sources:Baker, James. 2016. "Hibiscus Scentless Plant Bug," NC State Extension Publications
Kremer, Robert J. 1992. "Integration of a Seed-feeding Insect and Fungi for Management of Velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) Seed Production," Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Symposium on Biological Control of Weeds.
Jones, Walker A., H.E. Walker, P.C. Quimby, and J.D. Ouzts. 1985. "Biology of Niesthrea louisianica (Hemiptera: Rhopalidae) on Selected Plants, and its Potential for Biocontrol of Velvetleaf Abutilon theophrasti (Malvaceae)," Annals of the Entomological Society of America 78(3): 326-330.
Slater, J.A., and R.M. Baranowski.1978. How to Know the True Bugs. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 256 pp.
Moorehouse, Angella. 2023. Flower Bugs: A Guide to Flower-associated True Bugs of the Midwest. Minnetonka, Minnesota: Pollination Press, LLC. 360 pp.
Steill, Jennifer, and Jason Meyer. 2003. The Rhopalidae of Florida "Scentless Plant Bugs." Insect Classification Project. 23 pp.

A group of juveniles on an unidentified host plant, New Jersey

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Book Review: Underbug

Termites exist at the intersection of biology, chemistry, ecology, engineering, and perhaps even philosophy. In Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, author Lisa Margonelli masterfully weaves all of these elements together, and then some. She manages to remain in that sweet spot between total participation in the story, and complete detachment, never overtaking the spotlight of her subjects, both insectian and human, but still revealing the personal impacts of where her investigations took her. She maintains empathy with the reader while taking them on a globe-trotting journey.

Underbug has more to say about humanity than you would expect in a book ostensibly about insects, let alone insects we consider economic pests. This is about where curiosity and imagination can take you. It ventures from the microscopic world of termite gut fauna to the megascopic, landscape-writing engineering of millions of diminutive members of a termite colony. How are they so successful? How can we harness their power to digest cellulose and use it to manufacture “grassoline?” What lessons exist for how to reclaim an abandoned mine and turn it back to its native grandeur?

It may be cliché to say that a book has something for everyone, but this one truly does, provided you are prone to a fascination with science, or relish contemplating the planet and our own place on it.

The book is divided into six parts, each one set off by a black-and-white illustration that gives the impression, appropriately, of a woodcut print (they are linoleum block prints by Thomas Shahan). The dust jacket has intentional holes in it, as if the book has already been “digested” by its very subject. How perfect. Margonelli manages to have a reverence for both termites and science, but never comes off as preaching or dogmatic. There is humor here and there, and the prose are descriptive enough to put you right in the center of things.

As a failed academic myself, I felt overwhelmed occasionally by the mathematics, genetics, and technological aspects of the stories (there are several), but remained captivated by the human characters and, of course, the mysteries of the insects.

Margonelli ultimately questions the accepted scientific course of the abstraction of natural processes, whether it has its limits, or if it is even a potential failing of our own species. Are we too attached to the idea that every other species, every habitat, serve us first, to justify its existence?

Without giving too much away, the conclusions reached are, as one might expect, inconclusive; for termites exist at the intersection of the known, the unknown, and the unknowable. Sometimes the biggest question for a researcher or engineer is when to give up.

Underbug was published in 2018, by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. It is 303 pages, including notes and index. This is as much an adventure book as it is a revealing glimpse into what defines science in the twenty-first century. Highly recommended.