Monthly Archives: June 2013

The plight of the Monarch butterfly

Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly is an iconic North American migratory insect that has exacting requirements of the environment. I was discussing butterflies with my friends Milus and Wanda Wallace recently and Milus pointed out how few adult monarchs he has seen so far this year AND that he has seen zero monarch caterpillars on milkweeds (Asclepiadaceae). 2013 had the lowest population of overwintering monarchs ever recorded. An NPR news report blames this on herbicide tolerant GMO crops and drought creating a severe loss of habitat (milkweeds) in the midwest.

S,o for the past couple weeks, I have been examining every milkweed patch I come across. I have found no monarch caterpillars, pupae, or eggs – even though I am living someplace new this seems abnormal. However, I doubt NPR has the correct cause(s). While habitat loss has no doubt impacted the monarch just like it has impacted most wildlife, there are other insects that are milkweed specialists that I am finding on the milkweeds I have examined. Milkweeds and milkweed habitats have not become so rare in the landscape that Tetraopes tetropthalmus and Oncopeltus fasciatus are absent. Perhaps the loss of monarchs has more to do with the difficulties of long distance migration and overwintering than it does midwestern milkweeds and milkweed habitats.

Tetraopes tetraopthalmus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Tetraopes tetraopthalmus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Hopefully, this year I will find monarchs, it will make me sad if I do not. Even though I think NPR has it wrong, Kelly has planted a few species of milkweed seeds and we are in the process of giving our home a native plant make over. Consider spots in your yard where you can enjoy a small milkweed patch(es). There is no doubt that there is much less habitat today than in the past. Your small milkweed patch can make a difference for monarchs and also attract some very interesting creatures for you to

Oncopeltus fasciatus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Oncopeltus fasciatus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

enjoy in your yard.













Trachymyrmex septentrionalis rides again!

Today while weeding the new native flower bed I found the nest of Trachymyrmex septentrionalis. Whew! I am so glad that I didn’t destroy the colony. The colony was located outside of the two layers of buried plastic (never bury plastic sheets as part of your gardening – it is just dumb). I watched them for quite a while on Sunday morning taking out the trash and bringing fresh frass into the nest – if only they would do the leaf cutting thing to the new flush of weeds in the new flower bed. Oh well, I guess that is my job. I am glad to see them back.

You can see the Trachymyrmex trash pile up against the orange stake marking a Rudbeckia. The nest entrance is where the white rock is in the foreground.

You can see the Trachymyrmex trash pile up against the orange stake marking a Rudbeckia. The nest entrance is where the white rock is in the foreground.

Photo of Trachymyrmex at the nest entrance.

Photo of Trachymyrmex at the nest entrance.


Nope, that’s just poop!

Today i had the opportunity to explore a ditch bank while Kelly was working. A ditch may not sound exciting, but it can provide hours of entertainment for the entomologically impaired. I photographed some ladybugs for the Lost Ladybug Project, shot some dragonfly photos (no county records for Odanata Central), shot Ponometia erastrioides (an Obion County record for BAMONA), collected a Lixus – like weevil that I hadn’t seen before, and then I came upon the truly fascinating: A WARTY LEAF BEETLE! Well, I watched it a while on the Sambucus leaf it was occupying, but it wasn’t moving because I spooked it. I then picked it up and held it to see if it would walk away – but at this point I had really traumatized it, so I decided to collect it. When I dropped it into my collecting vial it made a satisfying ‘clink’ – poop does not have an exoskeleton to make that sound! (I am such a smartypants I thought). When I got home, I did all the stuff I had to do thinking about how exciting this chrysomelid would be under the microscope when I had the time to view it! I have enjoyed these beetles before and they are so cool!

Nope, that is just poop! 23 June 2013 Obion County, TN

Nope, that is just poop!
23 June 2013 Obion County, TN

Well, under the microscope it was just a hard 2.5mm piece of caterpillar frass.

Sorry to have missed you

Today, I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I would visit my good friend Cylindera

The neighborhood for Cylindera cursitans.

The neighborhood for Cylindera cursitans.

cursitans. 2006 through 2011, Ted MacRae, Chris Brown, and I learned some really cool things about this beetle in Missouri (MacRae et al. 2011)! The coolest thing was we found this beetle to be using habitats that were outside of habitats previously described in the literature. Bottomland forests are a difficult habitat to census because not only is the habitat structurally complex, but there are also Diptera in the bottomland forests who will command your attention as they try to take blood meals from you.

The Mississippi River has been high, we have had a cold and wet spring, and the bottomland forest (likely due to the lack of beach because of high water) was full of of the larger, and probably dangerous to C. cursitans, Cicindela repanda. Perhaps C. cursitans was not out yet, perhaps C. cursitans was hiding from Cicindela repanda, or perhaps they were in plan sight and I couldn’t find them – part of the fun of looking for insects is you never know what you might find. Even though I did not find what I wanted, I did get to spend a few moments in the company of mature trees next to the awesome Mississippi River and soak up the peace and tranquility.

I am sorry to have missed you Cylindera cursitans, but I will be in the neighborhood again soon – maybe we can visit then!

Reference: MacRae, T. C., C. R. Brown and K. Fothergill. 2011. Distribution, seasonal occurrence and conservation status of Cylindera (s. str.) cursitans (LeConte) (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) in Missouri.  Cicindela 43.3:59–74.

Here they come!

Thursday morning, while isolating corn ear shoots at work, I heard the distinctive whirring of

Popillia japonica 13 June 2013 along jogging path in Martin, TN

Popillia japonica 13 June 2013 – on Erigeron sp. along jogging path in Martin, TN

the wing beats of Popillia japonica, the Japanese beetle! I tried to catch it as it whirred on past and manged to touch it, but not catch it. This cute, medium-sized scarab is, as the names suggest, yet another introduced species from Japan. When I went running after work, I saw several P. japonica on: Sorghum halepense (Johnson grass), Torilis arvensis (introduced umbel-thing), and Erigeron sp. After my run, I examined a nearby pre-reproductive corn field and found P. japonica in the whorl of roughly 10% of the plants. Of course, P. japonica eating at the whorl of vegetative plants isn’t the big problem for corn producers – it is when P. japonica eats the silks of developing ears that P. japonica costs corn producers money, because without silks the kernels that farmers get paid for don’t form. Of course, P. japonica is not just a bad deal for corn producers as this blog post by Kelly V. Tindall shows.

Our neighbor told us there will be hundreds on her peach tree and they will be super abundant during July. Here they come!


My mind is blown!

Patents are important.

Just like musicians, writers, and the like use copyright laws to protect their work so that they get paid. Just like sports teams not wanting you to use their footage/merchandising without their getting paid. Scientists also like to get paid – patents are one way that can happen.

When scientists work for large companies, the large companies like to get paid for paying the scientists they employ to do research. The Supreme Court yesterday said that human genes are part of nature and cannot be patented. This decision has positive and negative sides, and most of what I have read says it will free up the technology and spur research. The other side is that if the benefit of the research to the researcher is diluted, this could retard research efforts. I am obviously not the smartest of researchers, as is demonstrated by the fact that I often chase after questions that yield me no monetary benefit. I think most researchers are driven by the questions. However, maybe the smartest of researchers choose questions based on financial gain? I don’t know.

Another important aspect of this decision is the Supreme Court is that they took the time to differentiate the types of more valuable/synthesized genes used in biotechnology/ agricultural crop engineering as able to be patented. Of course this leads to dichotomy where some life (or life products) are and some are not able to be patented. I assume further litigation will be required to further nail down exactly what can be patented.

The Levi-Strauss patent that lead to the development of blue jeans was unaffected by this decision, as the court was only considering genes that start with the letter ‘G’.

I hope you find this useful.