Saturday, November 18, 2017

Aphids on a Dock

On the MN training field trip to Henning Glade, Becky Swearingen and others found a prairie dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum, flower head covered with orange dots.  These were aphid larvae with an occasional adult, crawling all over the stem.  In the middle of the scramble there was a long flat area with a lot of "stuff" on it.  On closer inspection, this was the protective cover on the back of a debris-carrying lacewing larva.

We described these lacewings in a past blog but I took this one home with me for pictures.  When I opened the little insect box the next day, it was a scene of aphid carnage.  There were over 30 aphid carcasses scattered about, sucked dry by the lacewing larva.  It was interesting that during the feeding orgy within the confines of the little box it hadn't made any attempt to decorate its back with debris as it had the day before.

There are several possible explanations for this "naked" lacewing.  Some aphid colonies are protected by ants in a symbiotic relationship.  The ants get aphid honeydew and the aphids get protection from bullies like these lacewing larvae.  Thomas Eisner removed debris from some of their backs and showed that decorated lacewings could invade an aphid colony while naked ones were repelled.  It may also be that the day before it was just covered by crawling aphids.

Our Master Naturalist videographer Linda Bower has this clip showing a green lacewing larva grabbing an aphid (at :32 seconds) and then sucking away, earning its name as an aphid lion.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Horntail Technology

This insect caused quite a stir when found on a tree at the WOLF playground because of its prominent "stinger."  Although it looks dangerous, it is actually harmless unless you happen to be a tree.

Wasp stinger with venom drop - Wikipedia CC
This is a horntail wasp of the Siricidae family, another example of a wasp without a stinger.  The 20,000 plus species of solitary wasps do not have stingers.  Social wasp females such as the yellowjacket have their ovipositor modified to sting defensively, delivering a dose of venom to remind you of it for longer.

Horntail and ovipositor - Barry Stewart

Siridicae's "horntail" seen above is really decorative, of no known purpose except to scare us.  The female's ovipositor is beneath and much more flimsy looking.  It uses it for the original purpose, in her case injecting an egg into wood.  Imagine the pressure required to push a pin or needle into wood and compare it to the lightweight wasp body.

Urocerus albicornis - Eric Adams
The ovipositor overcomes the weight problem by mechanics.  First, the ovipositor lies inside a sheath that absorbs most of the pressure.  She will probe the wood in several places, finding a soft spot to inject the egg with fluid.  It contains a fungus that she carries in an abdominal opening.  The fungus will attack the wood while the egg matures, providing the newborn larva a predigested meal. 
Ovipositor with sheath on either side - Stanislaw Kinelski, CC
The story gets even better.  Many species of horntails have zinc in their ovipositors as well as in the adult's jaws, hardening them for chewing out of their wood incubator when they emerge as discussed in this previous blog.  In addition, the horntail ovipositor design has inspired new medical instrumental technology as described in Materials World Magazine:
"The wood wasp’s ovipositor looks like two hollow needles, one inside the other, each of which is lined with backward-facing teeth to give purchase as the wasp ‘drills’ progressively into the bark of a tree. This takes surprisingly little force, making it attractive for carrying out minimally invasive procedures such as brain biopsies without having to exploit a natural orifice."
The only significant damage they cause is if a board used in your house construction contains the larva.  When the adult emerges from its pupa it will chew its way out through wood, plasterboard or even a plastic covering.  Please forgive it and understand what a cool insect is visiting your house.
More at blogs by Bugeric and the Bug lady.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Asian Ladybugs

This story starts with an inquiry from Lori Herring and her 2nd and 3rd grade students at Marshfield R1 School.  They were studying trees and found the maple leaf above with something on it they couldn't identify by field guides.  A first guess was an Asian ladybug larva but there was more to the story.

Early larva

Zooming in you can see a little beyond halfway down that the larva is splitting its skin down the back to expose the pupa.  Notice the spiky features at the front, the remains of the last larval stage to the right.  This is the last step in its metamorphosis before it emerges in the fall to start to torment us. describes this step in the life cycle: 

"When the larva has grown to its full size it will then attach itself to the stem of a plant. It splits along its backside and exposes the pupa underneath. This sounds like something out of one of the “Alien” films and it really doesn’t take long to figure out that they didn’t get those ideas straight out of their imagination! The pupa, though, is wrapped up in this final stage of its metamorphosis and so is safe from the elements – but not from predators. It is at this stage it is at its most vulnerable. If approached close to its hatching time by a possible predator it will shake itself dementedly to try and warn off the unwelcome visitor! This last stage takes just a few days and then the adult ladybug is ready to emerge."
Larval stage
Now back to the "torment."  This is the Asian ladybug, Harmonia axyridis, actually a beetle as all "ladybugs" are.  It is most commonly known as the harlequin, multicolored Asian, or simply Asian ladybeetle in the Coccinellid family.  Unlike our "ladybugs" beloved in children's stories and merchandise, these are no "ladies."

Last week, shortly after the first hard freeze of the year we had the sudden return again of swarms of these ladybeetles on the sunny side of the house, the trees and my neck.  There are those annoying little nips on the neck and arms and when I swat or brush them away I am left with a stink on my hands.  Why now?  Tim Smith answered the question in the Missouri Conservationist Ask the Ombudsman column several years ago.
"Each fall, during a warm-up following the first cold weather, the insects gather on the sunny sides of houses and other structures as they look for cracks and crevices where they can find shelter from the coming winter.  Many will survive the winter and appear again in the spring as temperatures warm and they try to exit the house."
According to Wikipedia, they were brought to the United States in 1916 to control insect pests of plants, but were not successful.  In 1988 they were observed in numbers in New Orleans, and since then they have spread.  By 1995 they were occasionally found in the Midwest and became common in 2000.

They cluster by the hundreds in protected spaces
Subsequently, they have also contributed to the decline in native ladybugs, presumably by out competing them.  They also have reached pest status to the higher biped mammals, i.e. us, both because of the swarming numbers, their little bites and unpleasant odors and the tendency to move into our buildings.  For information on these pests including control recommendations, check out this Ohio State site.
=== has detailed photographs of their various life stages from egg to annoying adult.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

This is a Bug?

Green Stink Bug

A student found this on the WOLF School field trip to Bull Mills and announced "I caught a mosquito!"  My first guess was crane fly, but I wasn't even close.  This is a stilt bug, aka thread bug, a member of the Berytidae family of Hemiptera or true bugs.  With their slender bodies and thin legs I would never have guessed they are related to other Hemiptera like stink bugs.

In addition to their svelte physique they have several distinguishing characteristics.  Their femurs (the leg segment nearest the body) have a swelling at the distal end.  Also their antennae are geniculate (elbowed - your word for the day) and have a slightly bulbous tip seen below.

Very little is known about their habits.  Although they are said to be common on plants in the spring, most are less than a half inch long, have little color and move slowly so they are hard to see.  While many are thought to be plant eaters, especially those plants with sweet hairs, some may be omnivores, eating plant bugs and their eggs.*

Despite the mosquito-like appearance they don't sting, bite or land on us deliberately.  Incredibly, they are said to overwinter as adults, without a drop of insulating fat on their body!  Googling 80 links didn't bring up any more details so I suggest you simply enjoy the pictures.

* The Bug Lady at Field station
 Shelly covered them at MoBugs in 2010.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Rotting Log Exploration

The WOLF students were exploring rotting logs at their Bull Mills field trip.  The most exciting find was several northern black widow spiders, Latrodectus variolus, with their typical disconnected hourglass on the ventral abdomen that we discussed in this September blog.  They also found a few smaller black spiders with orange and white markings.  I have submitted these to Bugguide and am awaiting a definitive reading but I suspect by their size and coloration that they are sub-adult males as seen at this link.
"The mature males are much smaller with abdominal markings that are more red-orange and either continuous or broken red-orange strip bordered by white down the dorsal midline of the abdomen. It also has several pairs of white stripes along the sides of the abdomen. Juvenile females can show a similar pattern of the mature males."
False Wolf Spider, Zoropsis spinimana
There were lots of spiders crawling around in the wood and not all had eight legs after encountering the students' tweezers.  The spider above which I am calling a false wolf spider, Zoropsis spinimana, was as patient as a fashion model, letting me get views from all angles.  The image on the left was the exuvia of a spider, the skin it shed after molting.
Polygyridae snail, immature
Snails are common in rotting logs where their rasp-like mouths can scrape up fungal mycelia.  Chris Barnhart identified this as a pulmonate (air-breathing) snail in the Polygyridae family.  It is immature and measured only 10mm and spent the afternoon crawling laps in the Gerber babyfood bug box.

A final bonus was Mrs. Reece's find of this Halloween special, a marbled orb weaver.  These normally have a firm round abdomen but this one had just concluded her egg laying and was crawling through the grass displaying her new slim and dimpled physique.

More of their finds are at this link.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Pink Millipede

Millipede heading west - Chris Barnhart
Chris Barnhart and I were walking along, rolling over rotting logs like 5th graders and finding common millipedes like the Auturus evides below which we discussed in a past blog.  Then he spotted the tiny pink flat-back above, a new find for me.  He suggested looking at a publication from Emporia State

Auturus evides
Being the modern scientist and suddenly a budding diplopodologist, I chose the more modern scientific method and Googled "pink millipede" and rapidly came up with the Brachycybe spp.   Not only is this an unusual appearing millipede, Wikipedia describes a very interesting lifestyle.  While most millipedes are vegetarians, feeding on leaf litter and other dead plant material, Brachycybe eats fungi living in rotting wood. I believe our specimen is Brachycybe lecontii.  Brachycybe is Greek for "short head" which certainly describes this critter as I could only determine the front end from the direction it traveled.

Leg count - Chris Barnhart
Chris put me in contact with Norman Youngsteadt who has published several papers on related millipedes.  He wrote that he has found them under rotting logs and that they are uncommon.  He mentioned that the only report in Missouri was where he found them "in the National Forest in Christian County southeast of Ozark not far beyond where Red Bridge Road crosses Bull Creek."  That is a mile or two south of where we found ours.

Now here is where it gets really interesting. Most Brachcybe spp. exhibit parental care, an unusual finding in invertebrates. The males of most species guard the eggs until they hatch. Youngsteadt's paper has a photograph of a millipede wrapped around a clutch of 24 eggs.

Millipedes are cool and an understudied class of invertebrates commonly found under rotting logs, not as flashy (dare I say charismatic) as a scrambling centipede but a little more dramatic than a helpless earthworm.  If this blog has whetted your appetite for more diplopodology, a good place to start is this link that has extensive information on millipedes in general.
Here was a Halloween special I intended to post earlier.  Chris Barnhart had sent me this "Pumpkin Spider", his name for a species known to the rest of the world as a Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneus marmoreus. 
Marbled Orb Weaver - Chris Barnhart
Since then we found another specimen below, the same color but with a shrunken abdomen after she delivered her egg sacs.  I don't have any comparable photographs of the before and after in our family, (and if I put them on line even 50 years later I would have been killed by my wife in what any court would rule justifiable homicide.)
Marbled Orb Weaver, postpartum - Found by Courtney Reece - REK

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Bristle Butt the Fly

We had a frequent visit from Bristle Butt the fly last month.  It was landing on my chair, clothes and arm, curious without intending harm.  Finally it settled on my finger, begging to be photographed.  I submitted pictures to Bugguide and came up with an identification of an Archytas spp.  There are 15 species, all native of the Western Hemisphere but some species are now introduced into Hawaii.

The genus Archytas was named for Archytas, a classical Greek philosopher/mathematician.  "He was reputed to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled flying device, a bird-shaped model propelled by a jet of what was probably steam, said to have actually flown some 200 meters."  
Disclaimer: Most think it flew on a wire.

Archytas spp. are in the Tachinidiae family, the second largest family of Diptera (true flies).  Diptera (two wings) have only one pair of apparent wings, the hind wings having been modified into stabilizers called halteres that control their balance.  Their diagnostic features are described in Wikipedia but the most apparent one when sitting on my finger was its bristles all over the body, especially on the abdomen.  They resemble an overweight housefly with a bad haircut.

In most species, their larvae are parasitoids, developing in a living host, careful to nibble only on nonvital organs to keep it alive until they pupate.  Their host eventually dies.  The majority of their host species are the larvae of plant eating insects such as grasshoppers, moths, true bugs and beetles.  Many of these are  juicy caterpillars, making them the gardener's friend.  There are lots of hosts around so they are mainly a problem only if you are raising lepidoptera.  The Bug Lady describes other Dipterian characteristics in more vivid detail.  Our Archytas spp. above specializes on various moths, including Noctuidae or owlet moths, notorious for the armyworms and cutworms that attack our crops.

Once again, an insect that many people would swat just wants to make friends and is willing to help around the garden in trade for a little respect.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Mite-y Bess Beetles

Click to enlarge
I came across several of these beetles when a rotted piece of firewood broke apart.  Their distinctive appearance makes them easy to identify as a horned passalus (Odontotaenius disjunctus),  a.k.a. Bess beetle or patent leather beetle for its shiny body.  It is a member of the Passalidae family.  It is unique in the family in its ability to stand freezing temperatures.  Unlike many insect species which are hard to separate, the horned Passalus is the only species in the family which occurs in the US north of Texas and Florida.

The horned passalus is the "largest showy beetle in the US." *  "The pronotum (back plate of the thorax) is square with a deep middle grove, separated from a deeply grooved  elytra by a deep waist."**   It has powerful mandibles capable of chewing through oak but do not bite and can be safely handled (if handling beetles is your thing).

Bess beetle ventral view - note the hairs and brown bumps under the "chin"
The horn on the head extends above the eyes and is quite obvious in a side view of the head.  There are fine golden hairs on the middle pair of legs, around the edges of the pronotum, and on the antennae.  Newly emerged beetles are a deep orange-brown but soon turn all black.

Newly emerged from its pupa
These beetles and their families live their entire lives in well rotted wood.  I call them families because they are a rather tightly knitted group.  The white grub-like larvae cannot digest wood by themselves and are fed with food which has been chewed by the adults including their parents or previous generations.  Like termites and anything else that eats wood, they require bacteria in their gut to digest the cellulose.  They acquire these bacteria by eating the feces of the adult beetles.  The larvae won't develop in sterilized rotted wood.

Adults communicate by stridulation, squeaky sounds made by rubbing body parts together.  They have at least seventeen different calls, more sounds than any other known arthropod.  I can picture a patient graduate student with a tiny microphone hovering over a rotten log, wondering what they are saying to each other.  I suspect they are saying, "Doesn't this highly educated, advanced biped have something better to do?"   Check out their stridulation at this link.  Recorded by Will, Kaiden and Hilton at the WOLF School. ****  

A Bess beetle larva (grub) is a prodigious eater, taking in lots of wood and passing most of it out, a virtual frass factory as seen in this video.  These grubs can even make their own sounds, rubbing their tiny stub of where the back leg should be against the rough area on the back of the second leg.  The tip of the reduced leg has a variety of teeth so the grub can create many different sounds.

You may have noticed the brown bumps below the chin in a photograph above.  These are mites that are frequently carried underneath the head and between the legs, occasionally climbing up on top for some fresh air.***  Many beetles carry mites as passengers.  This is particularly true of beetles that live underground or in dead vegetation. We discussed this in the blog about Sexton beetles

You "mite" be even more interested in the beetle/mite association.  If so go to Macromites Blog.  Yes, there is a group that is passionate about mites, an acquired taste to be sure but still a fascinating subject.

Like a few other beetles, when on their back on a flat surface they seem to be unable to roll over without help.  I suspect that if you spent your entire life in rotted wood chambers with something to hang on to, you would consider learning to roll over a waste of time.  When I put it back in its log, I thought I heard it squeak out a "Thanks."
A comprehensive resource is at this  University of Florida site. 
 *      Beetles, Peterson Field Guides
**    National Audubon Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders, p. 555.

***  "Passalids almost invariably have associated mites - several families of mites are found ONLY in association with passalids, and many genera and species are similarly restricted - suggesting a very long association between the two groups.  I know of no mites that are harmful to the passalids, although there may well be some (e.g. tracheal inhabitants)."  (
**** WOLF is a Springfield Public Schools choice program in partnership with Wonders of Wildlife and Bass Pro for 5th grade students focusing on nature studies and conservation.

Kevin' s Cat Bite

Kevin Firth from the Butterfly House* sent me this story of a "cat" bite (as in moth caterpillar) which demonstrates the death defying heroism of the Butterfly House volunteers.  Fear not, it has a happy ending.  First the bite in Kevin's words:

So as I drove home from the Butterfly House, I was halfway down Seminole when I felt a creepy-crawly sensation on my left leg ('bout halfway up my thigh). I didn't pay it much attention and just shifted around in my seat and kept driving....but the sensation didn't go away, so I absentmindedly reached down to scratch and felt the unmistakable shape of a caterpillar under my jeans. I figured one of the wandering monarch caterpillars had hitched a ride while I was at the house, so I did my best not to smash it before I got home.

As I was pulling into the driveway, the mystery cat decided that my leg was a close enough match to its host plant and started nibbling my leg. I pulled in the garage and exited my vehicle as quickly as I could and in the most dignified manner I could manage double-timed it into my kitchen, being careful to close the door before kicking off my shoes and dropping my drawers at which point I discovered that my tormentor was not a monarch but a prepupal dagger moth caterpillar of some sort.

By that stage the cat had darkened and its cavorting about in my jeans had rubbed off much of its setae (hairs) so I have not been able to determine the exact species). I could only assume that it had decided that I had a wooden leg and was trying to excavate its pupal chamber in my thigh.  How or where I picked up this nascent hitchhiker I have no idea, but I left it happily burrowing into some wood chips along with several of its congeners. 
Acronicta rubicoma - Kevin Firth
Ruddy Dagger cat - Kevin Firth
Alas, I did not get a picture of the offending critter as I was most decidedly more interested at the time in interrupting its attempt to pupate in my dermis.  The cat in question was most likely Acronicta rubicoma since it was apparently feeding on hackberry (before my leg, that is).  I did, however, raise a few A. rubricoma just recently (and, having learned my lesson last year, provided them with a more appropriate pupation substrate):
Kevin Firth

Ruddy Dagger - Bob Patterson CC
The  Acronicta spp are commonly called dagger moths, as most have one or more black dagger-shaped markings on their forewing uppersides.  The Ruddy Dagger Moth, A. rubricoma is an exception, having a conspicuous dark ring marking instead, referred to by moth aficionados as a reniform spot ("a kidney-shaped mark") on the forewing.  I looked at a lot of images on Bugguide and it looks more oval than kidney shaped, but then I am a reformed gastroenterologist so what do I know!  Bob Kipfer


Friday, October 6, 2017

A Pair of Argiopes

A quick field trip to Linden's Prairie with Jay Barber,  Dr. Gina Wood of MSU, and a group of teachers-to-be yielded a cool pair of Argiope spiders.  One of the students spotted this black and yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia, the web decorated by its typical zigzag stabilimentum whose purpose is still debated.

This isn't the only unique thing about A. aurantia.  The male literally dies of a heart attack after inserting his second sperm laden palp into the female.  The whole story is too gruesome for this blog (but you can read it here).

On close inspection one student noted that it was still holding the remains of an insect in its jaws as it hung upside down.  Under magnification I think it is the remains of a former grasshopper.  You can make out the head and eyes, the posterior pointing V of the pronotum and the remains of the front leathery wings (tegmentum).

As we were getting back on the bus, another student found this beautiful Argiope trifasciata, the common banded garden spider.  Its worldwide presence is thought to be due to accidental human introduction, to  Central & South America, Australia, the Mediterranean region, Africa, Sri Lanka, the South Pacific Islands, and China.

Our specimen was hanging from a web covered with feathery seed heads blown by the prairie winds.  As a parting gift, one student tossed a small curled up millipede into the web and the spider rapidly attacked.  It started spinning it, wrapping it tightly into a silken ball.  I tried to capture it on this video.  The first half is somewhat out of focus but you will get the idea.  When last seen, the millipede was tightly wrapped for a future dinner.
Discover Nature Schools is a curriculum created by the Missouri Department of Conservation to give students "hands-on learning, teaches problem-solving, and provides authentic and local contexts for learning."  DNS prepares teachers to teach students from pre-K through high school about Missouri’s native plants, animals, and habitats and connects them with nature.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

WOLF Grasshoppers

The WOLF class field trip to Bull Creek last week had us talking about riparian tree identification and why trees are important.  As fascinating as I am sure the 5th graders found our insights, they couldn't compete with grasshoppers.  One hop and they were off and chasing them like a dog on a rabbit.

This drab gray grasshopper that fell prey to the quick WOLF hands is the Carolina grasshopper, Dissosteira carolinaThis is one of our largest grasshoppers and is commonly seen on bare ground like the gravel road we were walking.  Their slow and lazy flight may be mistaken for a butterfly.  They are easy to see in flight but are camouflaged on landing when its outline can disappear.

The brown grasshopper above especially caught my eye.  This is the autumn yellow-winged grasshopper, Arphia xanthoptera.  It may look drab but wait until it takes off.  It produces a crackling-snapping sound in flight called crepitation. The yellow-orange underwings flash brightly until it lands, then the grasshopper disappears in the ground colors.  Males may do this to attract females.

The flash of color is a trick similar to the goatweed leafwing butterfly when it lands and suddenly becomes a dead leaf.  Strangely enough, this bright color is an effective trick to fool predators.  The white tail of a cottontail rabbit or a deer works the same way.  Focus on the tail and when it suddenly freezes with its tail down, our eyes are still searching for the white flag.  Dirk Seemann's research on this trick is described here.

This post prompted my buddy George Deatz to sent the picture above of a really cool grasshopper his daughter Leslie photographed in Nixa.  This is a  Pine Tree Spur-throat Grasshopper, considered rare by those hunting grasshopper but occasionally found by us amateurs wandering around with cameras.  Good shot, Leslie!  

Thanks to Bugguide and Brandon Woo, an undergrad at Cornell and fellow bug nerd, I was able to get a quick identification of these species.  Bugguide volunteers monitor the photographs coming in for identification and make life much easier for me.