Friday, February 26, 2016

Please Welcome Tender Corporation as a New Sponsor

I am happy to announce a formal partnership with, and sponsorship by, Tender Corporation, makers of After Bite® and other quality products for outdoorsmen (and outdoorswomen) everywhere.

From NHPR.org

My relationship with this company dates back to last year when I was asked to contribute posts to their Insectlopedia educational blog. This year I was promoted to the primary expert there. Special thanks to Emily Snayd and Kristin Hathaway at HFS Communications for being such consummate professionals who make my job easier.

Tender Corporation is perhaps most unique in valuing an educated consumer. They go the extra mile to inform their patrons and website visitors via the Insectlopedia. They are a small enough company so as to be responsive to customer feedback and requests, yet large enough to provide quality merchandise at reasonable prices.

Based in Littleton, New Hampshire, Tender Corporation does much more than manufacture products. They sponsor fundraisers for local charities, and created a permanent endowment in 1992 that provides scholarships for New Hampshire undergraduates who choose to pursue studies in environmental science including forestry, biology, botany, and ocean sciences.

I find it ironic that the impetus for the founding of Tender Corporation stemmed from the owner's epic torment from black flies, the subject on one of last week's posts here. Please visit the Tender Corporation website to learn more, and/or click on the After Bite ad in the sidebar of this blog page. Thank you, Tender Corp!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Colorado Gall Insects

I am happy to announce that I have an article on gall insects in the latest issue of Colorado Gardener magazine. Many thanks to editor and publisher Jane Shellenberger for her appreciation of contributing writers and photographers.

This is a free publication, but you can read this issue and back issues online, at their website. You may also want to "like" their Facebook page, here. Thank you.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Don't Dig Those Dandelions?!

Many of us conduct certain rituals in our yards and gardens without questioning why; not the least of these is "weeding." We are taught to despise any plant that volunteers itself in the flowerbed or the lawn. We are conditioned to uphold certain standards, and look to the marketplace for products to help us with that. Fortunately, the tide may be changing. Take dandelions for example.

© Marc Keelan-Bishop

I was surprised and delighted to see this meme pop up in Facebook recently, daring to suggest that we should be lazy(?!) in our approach to the inevitable blooming of dandelions.

Jewel beetle, Anthaxia sp.

In my own experience, especially in the western United States, I can vouch for the fact that a startling variety of insects exploit dandelions in early spring when few other flowers are in bloom. Birders will be pleased to know that Lesser Goldfinches and House Sparrows, at the least, feed on the seeds.

Checkered Skipper
Variegated Fritillary
Painted Lady

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is an introduced species in North America, presumably brought here by European settlers in the 1600s as a food crop. Indeed, the Common Dandelion has much to recommend it in nutritional value, and herbal medicine. The greens can be eaten raw, while older leaves are best if cooked. You can brew dandelion wine; and the roots, when baked and ground, make a decent coffee substitute. The diuretic properties of the plant are well-known.

Andrena mining bee, © Elaine Mansfield
Sweat bee, Lasioglossum sp.
Sweat bee, Halictus sp.

Meanwhile, bees of all stripes take advantage of the dandelion's robust nectar and pollen supplies, and early-blooming schedule when few native plants are yet in flower. Indeed, dandelions bloom throughout the warmer months, filling voids in natural bloom cycles between spring, summer, and fall peaks.

Celery Looper Moth
Melipotis moth, Melipotis sp.

Our disdain for dandelions seems to be of a cosmetic nature, and a reminder that we are not the masters of Nature, even in our own backyard. Consequently, we turn to herbicides, which only compound our problems by killing other, desirable plants, and contaminating groundwater and streams, rivers, and lakes.

Cutworm Hunter wasp, Podalonia sp.
European Paper Wasp

Ironically, it has been demonstrated that even if you mow dandelions, they will "learn" to grow shorter, flowering at a height just beneath the lawnmower blades. Might as well learn to live with them. Just tell your guests that you still have a green thumb, but you are also promoting biodiversity.

Sources: Bradbury, Kate. 2015. "Let dandelions Grow. Bees, beetles, and birds need them," The Guardian.
Wunder, Michael. 2015. "City spares dandelions to help pollinators," The Waverly News (Nebraska, USA).
ID√ČOmedia

Flower fly, family Syrphidae
Yellow Dung Fly, a predator
Tachinid fly, a parasite of pest caterpillars

Friday, February 19, 2016

Bite of the Black Fly

It happened at the zoo. I was parked innocently opposite the African Elephant yard, with the window rolled down on this nice late afternoon of September 19, 2015, waiting for Heidi to get off work. I noticed a tiny fly had flown into the car, but was truly shocked to see it was a female black fly, likely a species of Simulium....and she wanted my blood.

She got it, too, because I so rarely see members of the family Simuliidae, let alone adult females. I was able to get some respectable images of the 3-4 millimeter vampire precisely because she was occupied pumping blood out of my knuckle. What was she doing here, though?

I was under the mistaken impression that black flies, also known as "buffalo gnats" and, here in Colorado at least, "turkey gnats," seldom venture far from fast-flowing streams and rivers. That is because they spend the egg, larva, and pupa stage of their lives in aquatic torrents. It occurred to me that the elephant yard does have a waterfall, and I would bet that black fly larvae live on the very edge of that artificial cataract.

Well, I have since learned that female black flies are perfectly capable of flying miles in search of a blood meal. There are some records in Canada of black flies migrating over ninety (90) miles from where they grew up as larvae.

Only the female black fly bites. Like mosquitoes, she needs the protein for the proper development of her eggs; and she can lay several hundred eggs in her two- or three-week adult lifespan. Unlike mosquitoes, black flies do not have beak-like mouthparts to extract blood from our capillaries. Black flies slice you open with knife-like mouthparts, then lap up what spills out.

Depending on the species, the black flies lay their eggs on vegetation or other objects in the water, under the water, or scatter them on the water's surface. Interestingly, freshly-laid eggs apparently produce a pheromone (scent) that attracts other adult female flies of the same species, and stimulates them to lay their eggs in the vicinity.

The larvae that hatch spin silken pads on the surface of stones or vegetation in the middle of flowing water. They then anchor themselves to the silk pads with special hooks on the rear of the abdomen. The larvae feed in a unique manner, by deploying a pair of "cephalic fans" that intercept organic particulates from the current. Larvae molt 7-11 times.

Black fly larvae in Arizona

At the end of its larval life, the creature spins a silken bag in which it will pupate. The tapered rear of the bag points upstream into the current, while the wider, open portion projects downstream. The larva molts one final time to reveal a resting stage with branching gills that may reach beyond the lip of the silken bag.

Black fly pupae in Arizona © Tony Palmer

The adult fly emerges in a few days or so, rising to the water surface in an air bubble and floating to an emergent object it can climb onto and finish expanding its wings and hard its exoskeleton. The total time from egg to adult takes roughly 3-4 weeks and is heavily influenced by water temperature. The colder the water, the longer the life cycle. There can be three or four generations per year; winter is typically spent in a dormant larva stage.

Male black fly (note huge eyes meeting at top of head)

There are about forty species of black flies in Colorado, in three genera: Simulium, Prosimulium, and Metacnephia. Different species live at different elevations, and on different sides of the Continental Divide. Surprisingly, the majority are not pests of people or livestock, preferring to feed on birds and other wildlife.

The species that do afflict horses, cattle, poultry, and people can cause severe distress, and may carry diseases. I will spare you the agonizing details of suffering incurred by victims of black fly attacks, as there is no end to the resources where you can learn such information if you are so inclined.

Suffice it to say that it pays to be prepared with an excellent insect repellent if you plan to be in black fly territory. Prevention is always the best tactic for battling *any* bloodsuckers. Take care.

Female black fly on Feb. 24, 2014

Sources: Bechinski, Edward John, and Marc J. Klowden. 2005. Black Flies - Biology and Control. Division of Entomology, University of Idaho (available online as a PDF).
Cranshaw, W.S., F.B. Pearis, and B. Kondratieff. 2013. Biting Flies. Colorado State University Extension. Fact Sheet 5.582.
Kuhn, Dwight. "Black Flies - Life Cycle," Kuhn Photo.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

To Collect or Not to Collect

It has become fashionable in the last few decades to voice objection to the practice of collecting organisms, especially animals, and often certain types of animals like butterflies. Such righteous indignation is misdirected at best. Here is my personal assessment of this complex issue.

Reprimands from the public

When someone encounters you out in the field engaging in collecting, and scolds you for "killing butterflies" or bees, or whatever, you can defend yourself a number of ways. Gently remind them that if they drive a vehicle they are going to kill far more insects and other invertebrates in a year than you will collect in a lifetime. Ask it they apply pesticides to their lawn, yard, or garden. If they answer "yes," then again you can remind them they are killing far more insects than you are. Let them know that habitat destruction is the leading cause of extinctions, both local and global. You get the idea.

Comments from "citizen scientists"

Citizen scientists should understand the importance of scientific collections. If they do not, offer them a brief education to that end. The digital age has allowed people to make virtual collections through images, but seldom can a conclusive identification be made from a picture or two alone. An actual voucher specimen is needed to confirm the ID. These days, even gross morphology is often insufficient to reach a conclusion, and processing genetic material (DNA) is required. That doesn't happen without collecting. Scientific collections complement recordings in still images, audio, and video.

Student collections

Let's take a look now at who is making collections. Educational institutions that include the creation of an insect collection as a course requirement should be free to continue doing so, provided certain criteria are met. Students must be instructed on the proper techniques for preparing specimens. Data labels must be attached to each specimen. There must be a "chain of custody" in place resulting in the permanent disposition of student collections in a museum or other facility where they will remain useful in perpetuity.

Hobbyists and sellers

This category of collectors is much more difficult to defend. Again, it hinges on purpose. Collections are vital not only to scientific study, but for educators who use living and preserved specimens to create awareness and appreciation of those species by the general public. Scientists rarely have the time or inclination to make such presentations, but there are other people who are gifted at doing just that. Depriving them of a vital instrument in that mission is not in anyone's best interest.

Collections made for purposes of personal amusement, decoration, or commercial display are nearly impossible to justify, especially if specimens lack data, are improperly prepared, or otherwise cannot be repurposed for scientific or educational use. One significant factor that may possibly change that is the increasing business of "farming" invertebrates. Captive breeding now accounts for a sizeable percentage of specimens on the market for "hobbyists" and casual collectors. One should always inquire as to the original source of specimens being obtained through a vendor. This is for your own protection, too, lest you be subject to fines and criminal prosecution for illegal trading in specimens. Keep the paperwork.

Arguing for collections

Discussions about the ethics and importance of collections should not be invariably "defensive." It is the responsibility of those who understand the role of collections to advocate for them. The collections housed in public institutions are under increasing assault from within, by administrators who don't understand their value, or view collections as "dinosaurs" that are now a burden on the business of museums to "entertain" visitors and increase profits.

Much is at risk here if we fail to protect existing collections and foster better ones for the future. We stand to lose the next generation of scientists, for one thing. Biologists need to mentor high school students, even elementary students, and coach them in proper fundamentals of collecting, including the ethics. Many, many of my colleagues recount the early life experiences that led them into their scientific careers, and collecting insects is a recurring theme.

Collecting and you (and me)

Only you can decide whether collecting is an important activity for you, but please don't criticize those who do; certainly reserve judgment until you fully appreciate their motivation. Me? I have a collection of over 100 Cornell insect drawers. I have loaned many specimens to scientists who have identified specimens for me, resulting in many county and state records, and a handful of species new to science. When I moved into my wife's home, the "bugs" came, too, but there is not enough space to curate them properly. I have decided to deposit my specimens at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where they have state-of-the-art facilities. That transaction will likely happen later this year.

Sources: Freedman, Jan. 2015. "Bring out your dead: How museum specimens can contribute to environmental sustainability," Museums & Heritage Advisor.
Kemp, Christopher. 2015. "Museums: The endangered dead," Nature.
Roston, Michael. 2015. "A Guide to Digitized Natural History Collections," New York Times.
Warren, Andrew. 2015. "Why We Still Collect Butterflies," The Conversation.
Yong, Ed. 2016. "Natural History Museums Are Teeming With Undiscovered Species," The Atlantic.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Another Viral Internet "Monster"

Anyone on Facebook or other social media outlet has probably seen the latest in creepy-crawly videos, a creature purported to be a giant spider. The truth is, as usual, more fascinating and less disturbing. The horror part comes from the fact it is yet another example of a stolen video taking on a life of its own.

The creature in the video is not a spider at all, but a different kind of arachnid called an amblypygid or "tailless whip scorpion." One of my friends from Facebook, Laura Lee Paxson, tracked down the species as Euphrynichus amanica. It ranges in Kenya and Tanzania in east Africa. This animal, and its more widespread sister species E. bacillifer, are available in the "hobby" trade and as a result much of the information and "fright factor" is emanating from that community. It is important to note that responsible pet trade personnel are shedding a good deal of light on the biology of such poorly-known species.

The gentleman who generated the viral video is Adrian Kozakiewicz, an 18-year old in Germany (originally from Poland) who has earned an esteemed reputation in the international arthropod-breeder community. Unfortunately, unscrupulous hacks have taken his innocent intentions and re-published the video with false information and needless scare tactics.

Tailless whipscorpions belong to the arachnid order Amblypygi. They are not venomous, or dangerous in any way. They are overwhelmingly tropical in their geographic distribution. Most are found inside caves, under bark on trees, and in cracks and crevices on cliff faces from which they emerge at night to hunt other invertebrates. The front pair of legs are modified into exceptionally long, antenna-like sensory appendages used to detect both prey and potential predators. Fine hairs (setae) on the whip-like legs sense the slightest changes in air currents, directing the animal toward prey, or the nearest hiding place.

The spine-tipped "arms" are actually the arachnid's palps, akin to a scorpion's pincers, modified for grabbing or pinning prey. The video shows the amblypygid lashing out at Adrian, but the intended effect is to merely rebuff the perceived threat. Animal rights activists may see this as "taunting" a poor animal, but it is a brief and instructional demonstration of the animal's behavior, too.

Like wolf spiders, scorpions, and vinegaroons, amblypygids exhibit some degree of parental care after the young are born and before their first molt.

Should some version of this video other than the original show up in your social media, please do not share it, and do what you can to acknowledge Adrian in any comments. You might also wish to report the post to discourage future bad behavior and interrupt the viral nature of stolen material. Thank you.

Sources: Anonymous. 2016. "This Young Entrepreneur Owns a Place Among the Largest Invertebrates Breeders in Europe," Viral Subjects
Polden, Jake. 2016. "Why would you want to poke THAT? Insect breeder taunts freaky-looking whip spider....and gets bit multiple times," Daily Mail.
Schramm, F. 2011. "Euphrynichus bacillifer (Gerstaeker, 1873)," Panarthropoda.de.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tiny Wasp Hero Slays Redback Spiders in Australia

Spider wasps in the family Pompilidae are fearless hunters of arachnids as small as jumping spiders and as large as tarantulas (the "tarantula hawk" wasps), but I was unfamiliar with any species of pompilid going after cobweb weavers in the family Theridiidae. That was until late last week when these stunning images came across my Facebook news feed.

Abel Gonz√°lez snapped these images of a female Agenioideus nigricornis spider wasp carting a paralyzed Redback Spider, Latrodectus hasselti, back to a nest burrow in Oldbury, Western Australia. The significance of this behavior requires a bit of backstory.

The Redback Spider is one of the most dangerously venomous arachnids in Australia. Indeed, it is in the same genus as the widow spiders of North America: Latrodectus. Any organism that targets such a potentially lethal animal deserves some acclaim. Oddly, we have species of the wasp genus Agenioideus here in the U.S. as well. I witnessed a female A. humilis hauling a comatose orb weaver here in Colorado Springs last year, and even posted about it, complete with video, in this blog entry. Our New World species do not go after cobweb weavers, let alone widows.

The initial discovery of the relationship between the Australian A. nigricornis and the Redback Spider is credited to a nine year-old boy, who spotted a wasp dragging a spider in his backyard in Beaconsfield, Western Australia. The young lad pointed out the drama to his father, who was astute enough to collect the two animals and photograph the habitat. The specimens eventually crossed the desk of Andy Austin, a professor at the University of Adelaide, who identified them.

This is not a big wasp. Females are only 8.24-13.11 millimeters in body length. Perhaps their diminutive size helps them navigate the labyrinth that is a Redback Spider's web. It is apparently still a mystery how the wasp manages to subdue its prey to begin with.

Back here in the U.S., the only spider wasp thought to be a potential predator of widows is Tastiotenia festiva, based on one circumstantial record from Rodeo, New Mexico. The range of T. festiva is restricted to the extreme southwestern U.S. One other wasp is very well known as a predator of widows. It is the Blue Mud Dauber, Chalybion californicum, a very widespread member of the family Sphecidae.

The Australian wasp was known to science as far back as 1775, when it was first described from specimens collected by Captain James Cook in 1768; and it is a common insect found throughout Australia. The fact that its host was unknown until the 21st century speaks to how much we have yet to learn about even the most familiar of invertebrates.

Sources: Krogmann, Lars, and Andrew D. Austin. 2012. "Systematics of Australian Agenioideus Ashmead (Hymenoptera: Pompilidae) with the first record of a spider wasp parasitizing Latrodectus hasselti Thorell (redback spider)," J. Aust. Entomol. Soc. 51: 166-174.
Staff. 2012. "Killer Spider Meets Its Match in Tiny Wasp," LiveScience.
Wasbauer, M.S. and L.S. Kimsey. 1985. "California Spider Wasps of the Subfamily Pompilinae," Bulletin of the California Insect Survey. Vol. 26: 1-130.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: The Bees in Your Backyard

The digital age has thankfully produced a wealth of resources, both online and in print, for amateur naturalists looking for information about insect pollinators. Perhaps the best of these to date is The Bees in Your Backyard, by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016). This is a visually-rich, up-to-date reference to all the genera of bees in North America north of Mexico.

At eight-by-ten inches in size, this book really isn't a field guide, but a useful tool to help determine the identity of an individual bee from a specimen or detailed image. As one becomes more familiar with key characters of different kinds of bees, they become increasingly easier to identify in the field.

The Bees in Your Backyard could be recommended simply on the strength of the "keys" it employs to aid in bee identification, but it goes beyond that. The discussion of each genus includes distribution maps that show not only where those particular bees occur, but their level of abundance and diversity in a given area. There are also graphs showing the seasonal distribution of the bee genus; and a scale with life-size silhouettes shows the size range of the genus.

As the average infomercial goes "but wait, there's more!" Indeed, the introductory pages address bee anatomy, bee biology, how to study bees, and a key to the different families of bees. A separate chapter gives tips on how to promote bee diversity in your yard, garden, and neighborhood.

Interesting and relevant facts are scattered throughout the book in highlighted boxes of text. These are welcome little "surprises" and bonuses, but sometimes become distracting.

If there is any complaint with the book it may lie in this "busy" appearance. People who have a difficult time with their attention span or ability to focus may have problems with the book's organization. For example, chapters are divided into sections with decimal numbers (chapter 1 is divided into 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc). This is reminiscent of a textbook or website presentation and thus may appeal to students but not an older, more informal audience. Page numbers are located in the middle of the side margins of each page, and I, for one, have to learn that all over again each time I open the book.

Until now, the best reference for bee identification for this region was The Bee Genera of North and Central America, a bilingual (English-Spanish), scholarly work by Charles D. Michener, Ronald J. McGinley, and Bryan N. Danforth (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994). That book is now very much outdated, and is exceedingly expensive. Information on the biology of the bees is also minimal.

Whatever its minor shortcomings, or differing reader preferences, The Bees in Your Backyard is by far your best bet for a comprehensive work on all things apoid, in a compact 288 pages, too. Plus, at $29.95 U.S., it is highly affordable. Make sure you add this to your library, and use it often. Pollinators need all the help they can get, especially our native, solitary bees.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Damsels That Cause Distress

Note: The subject for this post was requested by one of my followers. You, too, are welcome to make requests for subjects or topics. Simply e-mail: bugeric247ATgmailDOTcom.

Nabis sp. from Colorado

You would think that insects called "damsel bugs" would be delicate and and otherwise dainty. Well, many members of the true bug family Nabidae are delicate, and certainly small, there is nothing meek about them. They are mostly nocturnal predators that can subdue other insects even larger than themselves.

Hoplistoscelis pallescens, Massachusetts

There are nine genera and 41 species of damsel bugs in North America north of Mexico. None of them are greater than 12 millimeters in length as adults, most of them smaller than that.

Nabis sp. from Colorado

The femur segment of the front leg is usually muscular and swollen, armed with at least one row of small teeth on the underside. This helps the insect to secure prey.

Some nabids are wingless when mature, or have forms with abbreviated and useless wings. Those that fly are often attracted to lights at night, perhaps to prey on other insects drawn there.

While I was in Massachusetts in 2009, I witnessed a specimen of Nabis roseipennis stalk and assassinate a small braconid wasp. The persistence and fearlessness of the little true bug was impressive.

Nabids are easily mistaken for other kinds of true bugs, and it takes a bit of practice to recognize them. Most assassin bugs (Reduviidae) are larger, but they and damsel bugs both have a short rostrum ("beak") compared to most plant-feeding true bugs.

Plant bugs in the family Miridae are perhaps the most similar to damsel bugs, but mirids have a "cuneus," a pronounced wrinkle or notch in the margin of the front wing near where the leathery portion meets the membrane near the tip. Damsel bugs lack this feature.

Here in Colorado, one of our common damsel bugs is a small, dark, ground-dwelling member of the genus Pagasa. They are almost beetle-like in appearance, and I have mistaken more than one for a ground beetle as it ran across the path in front of me. Pagasa can be fully-winged or have wings reduced to non-functional pads.

Pagasa sp., Colorado

The tip of the tibia on the front leg of Pagasafeatures a specialized pad of hairs called the fossa spongiosa that aids them in climbing slick surfaces and grabbing slippery prey.

Pagasa sp., Colorado

So effective are damsel bugs as predators that they are considered economically important as pest control in agricultural systems. Indeed, they are also among the most abundant of small predators.

Nabis capsiformis from south Texas

Sources: Henry, Thomas J., and Richard C. Froeschner. 1988. Catalog of the Heteroptera, or True Bugs, of Canada and the Continental United States. New York: E.J. Brill. 958 pp.
Kerzhner, Izyaslav M., and Thomas J. Henry. 2008. "Three new species, notes and new records of poorly known species, and an updated checklist for the North American Nabidae (Hemiptera: Heteroptera)," Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 110(4): 988-1011.
Slater, J.A. and R.M. Baranowski. 1978. How to Know the True Bugs. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 256 pp.