Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Wasp Wall

South Cape May Meadows in Cape May, New Jersey is a property managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) for birds and other wildlife. Near the parking lot stands a shed that itself is something of a refuge for a whole community of insects. One wall, facing west and with beams that make something of an overhang or trellis, is being worked over by the Eastern Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa virginica. The abandoned nests of these solitary bees are then used by mason wasps, leafcutter bees, and other solitary Hymenoptera.

The shed at South Cape May Meadows, behind the arbor entrance

During our visit this past September 24, we noticed the holes, then soon saw females of the Four-toothed Mason Wasp, Monobia quadridens, exploring some of those cavities. I wrote about this species previously, detailing its life cycle, but this was the first time I had observed them coming and going from nests.

Female Monobia quadridens entering her nest

One female delivered a paralyzed caterpillar during our observations. It was a surprisingly small larva given the size of the wasp, but then she caches several victims in each cell before laying a single egg, putting up a partition of mud, and then starting a new cell along the length of the tunnel inside the wood.

Female cuckoo wasp, Chrysis sp., prospecting for a host

One might think that nests in such solid material would be impermeable to parasites, but not so. We watched a brilliant blue-green cuckoo wasp, Chrysis sp., investigate some of the holes for occupants. Given a nest in progress, she would infiltrate and lay her own egg inside. Her larva would then consume the prey items left by the rightful owner for its offspring. Cuckoo wasps are nearly impregnable, with a very dense exoskeleton that deflects the bites and stings of host wasps. Cuckoo wasps can roll into a ball to further protect themselves.

Female Leucospis affinis ovipositing in a host nest

A less common parasitic wasp also came to the wall. Leucospis affinis is a large chalcidoid wasp. The female is easily recognized by the whip-like ovipositor that curls over the top of her abdomen. The ovipositor is the organ she uses to lay her eggs....by drilling through the solid wood directly into one of the cells of her host. How she divines the location of a host larva through a layer of dense cellulose is a mystery to me, but her aim is usually true.

Nest closure of mason wasp or carpenter bee

A completed nest of a mason wasp is usually identified by the mud plug that closes the entrance to the hole in the wall. Because the soil at Cape May is essentially all sand, it was difficult to tell if we were looking at a sand closure or a sawdust closure that would be the work of one of the carpenter bees.

Nest closure of leafcutter bee, Megachile sp.

Easier to identify was the completed nest of a leafcutter bee, genus Megachile. Leafcutter bees snip oval pieces from leaves of living plants and fashion those clippings into barrel-shaped cells that they stack along the length of a tunnel in wood, or underground in the case of a few species. The female bee then cuts at least one perfectly circular leaf fragment that serves as a "lid" for the completed cell.

Nest of grass-carrier wasp, Isodontia sp.

We found one hole filled loosely with bits of grass, and we surmise this was the work of yet another kind of wasp, the grass-carrier. These solitary wasps, related to mud daubers in the family Sphecidae, use dry grass to fill, and/or partition, and plug their nest tunnels. Near Cape May Point State Park we did witness a female Isodontia mexicana select and bite off a dry grass stem to take back to her nest, so we know these insects were active.

Female grass-carrier wasp, Isodontia mexicana, cutting a piece of grass

Ironically, one other kind of wasp was tearing the wall down one mouthful at a time. Workers of the Bald-faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, would alight on the wall and begin chewing off wood fibers to mix with their own saliva. This creates a pulp that they use to make durable paper nests. Looking more closely at the wall we realized that the scores of yellow streaks on the otherwise weathered gray wooden surface were where yellowjackets (of which the Bald-faced "Hornet" is just another species) had stripped fibers for use in building their nests.

Bald-faced Hornet gathering wood fibers to make paper

No doubt, earlier in the season there would be even more activity around this wall. The shed is still standing, sturdy as ever, so the insects are not doing much, if any, structural damage. Please consider that if you find that your own shed is becoming home to carpenter bees and other insects. You may find yourself as enthralled as we were by the little ecosystem started by carpenter bees.

Female Monobia quadridens exiting her nest

Sources: Evans, Howard E. 1963. Wasp Farm. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates (Cornell University Press). 178 pp.
Buck, Matthias, Stephen A. Marshall, and David K.B. Cheung. 2008. “Identification Atlas of the Vespidae (Hymenoptera, Aculeata) of the northeastern Nearctic region,” Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification No. 5: 492 pp. (PDF version).
Krombein, Karl V. 1967. Trap-nesting Wasps and Bees: Life Histories, Nests, and Associates. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press. 570 pp.
Krombein, Karl V., et al. 1979. Catalog of Hymenoptera in America North of Mexico Vol.2 Apocrita (Aculeata). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Pp. 1199-2209.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Arach" is Back!

One of the things I look forward to each autumn is the annual Flickr event known as "Arachtober". It is a Flickr group which slumbers between November and the following September, but remains a tradition among arachnophiles and macro photographers. There are always mesmerizing images posted from all corners of the globe.

Marbled Orbweaver, Kansas

Arachtober manages to recruit several new participants each year through word of mouth, blogs, and sheer curiosity. Not only spiders, but scorpions, ticks, mites, harvestmen, and all other arachnids are eligible for inclusion. Don't forget the artistry of spider webs, too, whether dew-adorned or dry.

Apache Jumping Spider male, Colorado

The only hard and fast rule of Arachtober is that the images you post to the group must not have appeared on your own Flickr photostream previously. Allowed quantity of images per day varies at the discretion of the group administrator.

Banded Garden Spider female, Colorado

Overall, interest in spiders seems to be increasing among the general public, and arachnids are achieving a much higher profile than ever before. This is great news, for there is still a great deal of work to be done to combat myth, superstition, misinformation, and fear.

Wolf spider, Alopecosa sp., Colorado

Please consider contributing to "Arachtober" on Flickr, or find another way to dedicate some time to sharing your spider observations, questions, or images. There are many groups on Facebook devoted to spiders and their identification, for example; and presumably, the same applies to Instagram. There is much you can contribute to our collective knowledge by doing so. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Grasshopper or Locust?

A person on a Facebook insect identification group recently asked a very good question about the difference between a grasshopper and a locust. You would think it is pretty straightforward, but not so fast.

The American Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca americana, is related to some grasshopper species in Europe and Africa that can become locusts; and it sometimes migrates beyond its usual geographic range in the U.S.

Most of us think of locusts in the context of Biblical plagues in Africa and parts of Europe, in ancient times. Such plagues still happen, and they are almost apocalyptic in their destructiveness. They even occur in North America on occasion, as well as other parts of the world, so there must be more than one species of locust, right? Yes, and no.

Two-striped Grasshopper, Melanoplus bivittatus, has been overwhelmingly abundant in recent years along the Colorado Front Range

Locusts are not a species of grasshopper, they are the result of overcrowding in the nymph stage of many kinds of grasshoppers. Under favorable conditions, there is an extraordinary survival rate of young grasshoppers, which are called nymphs. When they are literally so abundant and concentrated that they are rubbing elbows (well, "knees" is probably a more appropriate term), this friction causes them to detour from their normal route of metamorphosis.

Instead of maturing into the usual grasshopper, the adult stage features longer wings and other body modifications that permit them to fly greater distances, remain airborne for longer periods, and to undertake these migrations from one food source to the next over long distances. They also may be aided by winds ahead of storm fronts.

The Clear-winged Grasshopper, Camnula pellucida, is prone to population outbreaks in the American West

This is something of a simplification of the physiology of locusts versus normal grasshoppers, but a surprising number of species have the potential to morph into locusts when conditions are right. Then they overwhelm the landscape, defoliating every plant in their path.

Locust swarms will devour plants they would not normally eat. I recall a presentation about a locust epidemic in Oregon where the scientist showed slides of juniper trees (yes, juniper trees) that had been reduced to skeletons by grasshopper swarms. The locusts have even been known to eat garments on clotheslines. Grasshoppers are also omnivores, and will not hesitate to eat dead members of their own species, or gnaw on injured or even healthy ones. It is late in grasshopper season here now in Colorado, and I regularly see grasshoppers with wings reduced to stubs thanks to hungry comrades.

A victim of the grasshopper-killing fungus Entomophaga grylli

Fortunately, for us at least, grasshoppers face many mortality factors. While it has been a banner year for grasshoppers this year along the Colorado Front Range, huge numbers have succumbed to the entomopathic fungus Entomophaga grylli. The insidious fungus grows inside the insect, eventually commandeering its brain and forcing it to behave abnormally. The grasshopper, through no will of its own, climbs to the top of a tall weed, assumes a death grip embracing the stem, and dies. The fungal spores then erupt and rain down on healthy grasshoppers below to begin the cycle again. The spores may even decapitate the dead grasshopper as they exit.

Grasshoppers are the chief grazers of the prairie, even more impactful than livestock, deer, pronghorn, elk, and bison. Natural rangeland can usually withstand their feeding, but ranchers obviously see them as competition and exercise chemical controls when necessary. Since grasshoppers are mostly generalist feeders (a few specialize on only certain broadleaved plants), they pose a threat to agricultural crops, too.

A specimen of the extinct Rocky Mountain Locust
© Bugguide.net

Ironically, the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus, once the most abundant and devastaging insect pests ever to occur in North America, is now extinct. The book Locust, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, chronicles the rise and dramatic fall of the species, which ultimately vanished from the U.S. landscape by the early 1900s. I will not spoil the solving of the mystery, as Lockwood's account is far more riveting than anything I could craft if I was even prone to writing historical fiction. Let us just say it is a cautionary tale.

Historical range of the Rocky Mountain Locust

We can certainly be grateful that we seldom experience such traumatic explosions of grasshoppers here on American soil, but we should be empathetic to other nations that do. Entire economies can be on the verge of collapse in the wake of such devastation.

Source: Lockwood, Jeffrey A. 2004. Locust. New York: Basic Books (A member of the Perseus Books Group). 294 pp.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Funny Story

More content will be coming to this blog, more regularly, in October, but I wanted to share a humorous experience from our last bioblitz at Ute Valley Park in Colorado Springs. It was Saturday morning, September 16, and I'd already been up earlier than I usually am, so I will blame my assumptions on being a little tired.

I happened to spot an interesting syrphid fly, Ferdinandea sp., right in the middle of the trail. The park gets a lot of foot and mountain bike traffic, so I hurried to take pictures. My camera was not focusing well on this mostly overcast day, so I maneuvered to the side of the trail and kept trying....

Sure enough, I heard a trail runner pounding down the trail, and then stopping abruptly. I thought that was quite considerate and polite, but I hurried even faster to get a respectable image. I said "thank you for stopping" to the obliging jogger, but there was no reply. I finished shooting, and turned to continue on the trail. When I looked up, this was the "trail runner."

Naturally, when I related this story to others back at base camp, everyone had to offer their own punchlines. "But what did the buck say?" in reference to the song "The Fox" (What Does the Fox Say? "No, the buck stopped there," punned another individual. Yeah, yeah, hilarious.

I do not intend to be quite so assuming in the future, lest the next trail runner be a bobcat, mountain lion, coyote, or bear. Even our urban neighborhoods here can be dangerous to those who are not aware of their surroundings. Happy trails, folks.