Wednesday, July 19, 2017

White Prairie Clover: An Awesome Blossom

I am not a botanist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am pretty sure that the insect magnets in the shortgrass prairie field up the hill from my home here in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are White Prairie Clover, Dalea candida. What follows is a sampling of the many bees, wasps, butterflies, flies, and other insects that come to the flowers of this plant; and a little information on Dalea in general. Much of the pollinator enhancement literature touts Purple Prairie Clover, D. purpurea, so one has to dive deeper.

A cuckoo bee, Nomada sp., forages while a male sweat bee, Lasioglossum sp., approaches

Prairie clovers are in the pea family Fabaceae. White Prairie Clover in Colorado occurs from 3,400-7,200 feet in elevation, and blooms from June to August. It is a low-growing plant, flowers on stalks up to two feet tall, but the ones I see are no more than one foot tall and sometimes difficult to discern among the tall grasses, cacti, and yucca they share the prairie habitat with. This species is widespread from the Front Range across the Great Plains, north to Saskatchewan and Wisconsin, and as far east as Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Common Checkered-skipper, Pyrgus communis

The flowers are arranged in a cone, and bloom from the bottom to the top. The cycle can last up to a month, providing insects with pollen and nectar over a longer period than most flowers, and often at a time when few other plants are blooming. The down side to this plant, from the perspective of the photographer/entomologist is that insects quickly move to the side of the flower opposite the photographer, where they are hidden from view, then fly to another florescence and repeat. I missed a good number of opportunities because insects move across the flowers so speedily.

Male Hunt's Bumble Bee, Bombus huntii

Bees of all stripes seem to enjoy White Prairie Clover, and male bees may visit not only for nectar but for mating opportunities with foraging females. I saw far more male sweat bees, Lasioglossum (subgenus Dialictus), for example, than I did females. Even male bees can be sufficiently hairy enough to perform pollination services, even though they are not gathering pollen to feed to offspring. This is especially true for bumble bees and longhorned bees.

Sweat bee, family Halictidae

Female mining bee, Calliopsis sp.

Male longhorned bee, tribe Eucerini, family Apidae

Cuckoo bee, Triepeolus sp.

A second species of Triepeolus

Butterflies visit the flowers, too, mostly for nectar, but the caterpillar stage of some species feeds on the foliage of Dalea. This is the case for the Southern Dogface, a rather scarce species here in Colorado. In addition to the butterflies shown here, I also spotted a Variegated Fritillary making a brief stop on a blossom.

A "crescent" butterfly, Phyciodes sp.

Two Reakirt's Blues, Echinargus isola

At least one moth visited White Prairie Clover during my two separate observations: the Jaguar Flower Moth, Schinia jaguarina.

Jaguar Flower Moth, Schinia jaguarina

Wasps were highly diverse and plentiful visitors, but made some of the shortest refueling stops of all the insects observed.

Great Golden Digger wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus

Thread-waisted wasp, Ammophila pictipennis

Female Ammophila procera

Male Ammophila procera

Ammophila ferruginosa

Black & Yellow Mud Dauber, Sceliphron caementarium

Male sand wasp, Bembix sp.

Male beetle-killer wasp, Cerceris sp.

Male beewolf wasp, Philanthus ventilabris

Male thynnid wasp, Myzinum sp.

Female thynnid wasp, Myzinum sp.

Cuckoo sand wasp, Stizoides renicinctus

Flowers that are attractive to pollinators are also attractive to their predators and parasites, and that was certainly obvious during my watch periods. The bee assassin, Apiomerus sp., was somewhat surprising because the bug is so conspicuous atop such a small flower. I suspect it was having little or no success. Meanwhile, the odd, cream-colored ambush bug, Phymata sp., could achieve proper concealment, even to the point that I recall seeing only one when there were surely many.

Bee assassin bug, Apiomerus sp.

Thick-headed flies accost bees or wasps in mid-air and ram an egg between the victim's abdominal plates. The fly larva that hatches then feeds as an internal parasite. This often kills the host, but not always.

Thick-headed fly, Zodion sp.

Thick-headed fly, Physocephala sp.

My personal experience is that white flowers, or at least pale flowers, attract a far greater diversity of insects than red, blue, or purple flowers, and even more than yellow flowers in some cases. It is puzzling to me that few pollinator advocates bother to reveal that fact. Maybe because everything is bee- and butterfly-centered, and still color-intensive in the landscaping sense, white flowers get short shrift in recommendations for the garden.

Grasshopper wasp, Prionyx atratus or Prionyx subatratus

It may be worth it to harvest seeds from wild plants, but please do not dig up mature White Prairie Clover. The plant has a deep taproot. One may also wish to consult their state's Native Plant Society for potential sources of seed. The plant flourishes in full sun and dry soils, requiring only a medium quantity of water.

Green-eyed wasp, Tachytes sp.

I will try and produce more floral-themed, pollinator-rich posts in the future to help readers in making landscaping decisions that support native plants as opposed to exotic ornamentals and inappropriate cultivars. Feel free to make suggestions as to additional resources.

Mason wasp, Euodynerus sp.

Sources: Holm, Heather. 2017. Bees: An Identification Guide and Native Plant Forage Guide. Minnetonka, Minnesota: Pollination Press LLC. 224 pp. Useful mostly for Upper Midwest U.S.
Mader, Eric, et al. 2011. Attracting Native Pollinators. North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing. 372 pp. A Xerces Society guide.
Prairie Nursery

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Note to Pest Control Companies Trying to Use This Blog for Personal Gain

I have the "moderate comments" option on this blog fully operational, to eliminate spam, profanity, and other rude comments. Overwhelmingly, the offenders whose comments I swat most often are representatives of pest control companies that are seeking free advertising by including a link to their website and, maybe, a token compliment on a given post. I have a few words for these folks.

Those kind souls who actually take the time to read my blog understand that I never give pest control advice, for many reasons. Number one, the whole intention of this blog is to create a better understanding and appreciation of arthropods, and change attitudes from a "kill first, ask questions later" mentality to one of tolerance and pest prevention. Number two, I must reduce my own liability and vulnerability to legal action for dispensing advice that could go horribly wrong. My own financial protection has to be a concern, though I wish it was not necessary. Pest control companies have this as their number one priority, or they should. Lastly, my goal is to save my readers from unnecessary expenditures for pest control professionals, over-the-counter chemical treatments, and bogus products like "ultrasonic" repellent devices. They are largely a waste of money.

Another tactic that pest control companies have is to contact me suggesting that "your readers may be interested in x-subject or y-product or z-service," can you please post what amounts to a guest blog post on our company's behalf. No thank you. Pest control companies that are truly responsible, more customer-centered and less profit-crazed, and that honestly care about the environmental consequences of pest control, are welcome to e-mail me to discuss potential advertising on my blog. Advertising they would pay for, demonstrating their like-minded commitment to an educated consumer base. You better come armed with an A+ Better Business Bureau rating, and a host of customer recommendations, too. Naturally, I would be doing my own background checks to make sure our philosophies mesh.

Please note that my current blog sponsors are BioQuip Products and After Bite products, both of which are independent businesses that are pro-outdoor recreation and discovery and education. "Bug Eric" is all about encouraging readers to at least periodically unplug and go out and observe the natural world, be it their own backyard or a jungle, desert, or savanna overseas, or somewhere between those two extremes. This blog is also about understanding how the natural world works, understanding the place of all organisms in it, including Homo sapiens, and to encourage a more peaceful relationship with other creatures.

You are welcome to approach me for consideration of advertising space if your business reflects the values and intentions I have just described. Otherwise, please spare me your spam comments and requests for guest blogs. I would appreciate having more time to address legitimate topics and concerns here. Thank you.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Donation Day

This past Tuesday, June 27, I donated my insect collection, all 115 Cornell drawers and 13 Schmidt boxes, if I counted correctly. The recipient institution is the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They made a good case when myself and several other members of the Mile High Bug Club toured their new state-of-the-art collections facility a couple years ago. Oddly, I did not have mixed emotions about the move. It was time.

Frank (left) and Jeff (right) happily departing with my insect collection

Jeff Stephenson, Collections Manager in the Zoology Department, and Dr. Frank Krell, Senior Curator of Entomology, came down to my home with a U-Haul van and we set to work loading it up. Much to my delight, they even took the cabinets the drawers were in, so that our spare bedroom is now much, much roomier.

Heidi never complained about my collection, in fact she has been very supportive, unlike some spouses or girlfriends of entomologists, so I have heard anyway. Still, it is a relief to have this burden lifted, like a proverbial albatross around one's neck. I did not have space to work on further organizing the specimens, and they were doing no one any good locked up in my home. Once integrated into the museum's collection, they will be available for loan to scientists researching different genera and species. They may eventually be imaged and put into a growing online database accessible to everyone, not just scientists. That pleases me greatly.

One does get a few perks when they make a donation of scientific specimens. There is some brief acclaim or notoriety when the museum makes public its acquisition of your material. This will take the form of a blog post and maybe a newsletter blurb sent to museum patrons and volunteers. Then there is the tax write-off. This will be interesting because the museum can only count specimens and give an overall description of the collection's condition, not an appraisal. Even that can take weeks if not months, understandably. Thankfully, the entomological community is full of people who have experience in such matters. Meanwhile, Heidi and I have not itemized, taking the Standard Deduction instead, so that will be another adventure, possibly worthy of another trip to a tax expert for our returns next year.

I did not donate the collection for any of those gratuities. I did it to further free myself from the label of "bug guy," and continue my growth as a writer and artist. I did it to continue downsizing my possessions, which become increasingly burdensome as one ages. Simplicity and travel take priority more and more, and I find myself wishing I had done this sooner. I'd rather visit friends and make new ones than collect more specimens. Some of my colleagues still reprimand me, if kindly, for failing to take specimens I have photographed in their habitat. Some discoveries can only be properly documented with a voucher: the creature itself.

I do wish that donating my collection would cure me of my "trophy mentality," the need to provide proof that my time spent afield is worth something, not just a "hobby" or trivial pursuit. I sometimes wonder whether a suntan is some people's proof of status that they can afford to vacation frequently, an almost literal badge of affluence.

When "citizen science" became a....thing, I found myself lamenting that volunteers were putting real scientists out of work. I still think that is true to a degree, but now there are platforms on the internet that allow people to make real, concrete contributions to scientific knowledge. Those databases need refinement to be sure, but it is a step in the right direction, and it is a wonderful tool in recruiting a new generation of scientists, and launching whole new careers for retired folks. I am proud to be a part of that community, whether I am considered an authority or not. It is a constant learning curve, and I am happy to help those behind me, as others ahead of me generously lend me a hand in return.

I am looking forward to the next chapter in my life, however it unfolds, and happy to conclude this one, which began seriously when I was about twelve years old. I heartily recommend the process of self-evaluation and charitable donation. It is a sign that you are a responsible, adult human being who can think beyond himself.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Blodgett Peak Bioblitz Report

Back on April 22, 2016, I sat down with a City of Colorado Springs parks official to discuss my idea for having a bioblitz at one of the parks or open spaces in the city. He was enthusiastic enough to turn that concept into four bioblitz events as part of this year's 20th anniversary of TOPS - Trails and Open Spaces. Our first event was held Friday and Saturday, June 16-17, at Blodgett Peak Open Space in the extreme northwest corner of Colorado Springs, up in the foothills and mountains. Here is what happened.

Blodgett Peak from "Base Camp"

First, let me express how grateful I am to City personnel for their organization, and furnishing everything from vehicles to food for the volunteer science teams. Without their hard work in planning, and in coordinating with other City departments, we could not have achieved any of our goals.

The Mammal Team checking traps

A bioblitz, for those not familiar, is usually a 24-hour event designed to record as many species of organisms in a given location as possible. The resulting data often sheds new light on what plants and animals occupy the ecosystem. County and state records for species are not uncommon; and even species new to science have been discovered at bioblitzes. The Blodgett Peak event included scientists looking at mammals, birds, plants, fungi, reptiles and amphibians, and of course invertebrates.

Observations are being recorded on the iNaturalist website. So far, the Blodgett Open Space Bioblitz project has recorded 419 observations tallying 279 "species," which range from actual species to genus-, tribe-, or family-level classification, or even higher. All of this has been accomplished with only seventeen people uploading their records and images. The identifications are vetted by professional experts and citizen scientists from around the globe. Reports continue to trickle in, so keep an eye on this project.

The species tote boards filled up quickly

What did the invertebrate team discover? We started out by setting up three blacklight stations to attract moths and other nocturnal insects Friday night. We had a long wait for darkness, but just past dusk the insects started flying in. We also heard a Northern Pygmy Owl, which was something of a surprise in itself. One of our stations was at the entrance to the Open Space, right by the parking lot, and at the lowest elevation possible. Another station, unmanned, was placed well up the slope and just off of a trail in mostly scrub oat habitat. The last station was placed at an overlook even higher up, where mixed conifer forest habitat begins. Getting to the uphill stations was strenuous exercise.

Without a working flash on either of my two cameras, I was unable to document many of our nighttime visitors, but among our more spectacular species were these, imaged by my wife, Heidi:

Hesperophylax sp. caddisfly

Geometer moth, Euchlaena sp.

Owlet moth, Ulolonche disticha

Acrea Moth, Estigmene acrea

Vashti Sphinx moth, Sphinx vashti

Raspberry Pyrausta moth, Pyrausta signatalis

Spotted Tussock Moth, Lophocampa maculata

The next day came early, given the late night prior, but we persisted and found considerably more interesting species, from grassland habitats to thick forest:

A mating pair of Polyphemus Moths discovered by Tim Leppek

Erik Ostrum netted this gorgeous Two-tailed Swallowtail

Anicia (Variable) Checkerspots were abundant

Horse flies, family Tabanidae, found us!

One of the Vogels netted this male Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly

Putnam's Cicadad, Platypedia putnami was heard, but seldom seen

Pale Snaketail dragonfly, Ophiogomphus severus

Giant Lady Beetle, Anatis lecontei

Male robber fly, Cyrtopogon willistoni

Emerald Flower Scarab, Euphoria fulgida

Special thanks to: Tim Leppek for lending his amazing knack for spotting cryptic insects, and his quality images of them; Erik Ostrum for coming all the way down from the Ft. Collins area to share his expertise in Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths); Sam Johnson for his lifelong expertise in Lepidoptera; Emilie Gray for sharing her own expertise and some equipment; Bell Mead for manning our Mile High Bug Club Booth for the entire day on Saturday; the Vogel family for setting up one of the blacklight stations Friday, and energetically and enthusiastically searching for more species on Saturday.

Several organizations had booths at the bioblitz

We're just getting started with these bioblitzes, so hopefully some of you can join us for the next one, Friday and Saturday, July 14-15 at Jimmy Camp Creek Park on the eastern fringe of Colorado Springs. This is a grassland and sandstone bluffs ecosystem, with a quality riparian corridor and even stands of Ponderosa Pine on the ridges overlooking the creek. It is where we found that stray Mexican Silverspot butterfly this spring, so who knows what else awaits discovery there.

As close to the top as we got (and were allowed)