Category Archives: insect conservation

Dung beetle battle royale

Lately I have been locked away in our secret laboratory, identifying our dung beetles from a couple projects in the Missouri Bootheel. The specimens are moved from the boxes the have resided in the past couple of years, sorted into groups that roughly look alike, and then run

A group of dung beetles ready for keying under the microscope.

A group of dung beetles ready for keying under the microscope.

through a dichotomous key to confirm they are alike or separated. When most people think of dung beetles, they think of scarabs. If you pay attention to the dung you will find that many of the beetles you find will not be scarabs, but will be adapted for a dung lifestyle.

In a previous blog post I talked about the need for the correct key, and because many of the non-scarab dung beetles look like scarabs you will be tempted to run them through scarab keys. A close look at the antennae should keep you safe from falling into a morass of KEY FAILURE, where nothing works. Among the non-scarab dung beetles are Hydrophilids, or water scavenger beetles. These ‘dung beetles’ have a major distinction that makes them different from the scarab dung beetles – they are predatory as larvae (but this feature never shows up in any key – thank goodness). I know you have always thought of a piece of poo as tranquil, nice place to raise up a brood of kids, and I hate to ruin this idyllic notion, but predators run rampant in this environment. The hydrophilids in poo are beneficial because they help control fly populations, which came be a problem in livestock production.

Cercyon quisquilius, a tiny, but voracious, predator in the poo

Cercyon quisquilius, a tiny, but voracious, predator in the poo

A favorite poo hydrophilid is Cercyon quisquilius. Carl Linnaeus, a botanist, (and the first modern taxonomist) initially named this species Scarabeus quisquilius putting it firmly in the family Scarabaeidae, because the family Hydrophilidae didn’t yet exist. As our understanding of these beetles grew, so did our taxonomy. As I work with these beetles, my understanding of their roles, my appreciation of their innate grooviness, and realization that a poo is not a nice place to live increases.

Documenting Biodiversity

Today while picking veggies in the garden, I noticed Pieris rapae (Cabbage White) sheltering

Pieris rapae 18 July 2013 Weakley County, TN

Pieris rapae 18 July 2013 Weakley County, TN

from a light rain in the tomato plants. According to Butterflies and Moths of North America this common, ubiquitous, invasive species had not yet been documented in Weakly County, so this photograph provided documentation of occurrence.

Sure, it would have been cool to see a super rare species, but even the most common and non-native/invasive species need to be documented. It also would be cool to not have P. rapae larvae competing for our bok choy. The first step in conserving biodiversity is knowing the patterns of distribution. Consider submitting photos from your backyard to – you might be surprised at how poorly documented your home county is.

107-2013-07-07 15.21.59On a ‘the bok choy is lost’ note, earlier this month I documented caterpillars of Evergestis rimosalis (another Weakley County first record) in our brassicaceous garden crops. We have also had Murgantia histrionica also come in to enjoy our brassicaceous plants.

You do not enjoy a garden alone…

For the love of insects

This blog post is written by Kelly Tindall, the top entomologist in our household. The title of this blog post is also the title of an excellent book by Thomas Eisner.

The first photo posted by Margaret Balfour - the poor parsley is being decimated by no less than eight Papilio polyxenes caterpillars!

The first photo posted by Margaret Balfour – the poor parsley is being eaten by no less than eight Papilio polyxenes caterpillars!

A friend posted a picture of a parsley plant covered by swallowtail larvae on Facebook with the following caption “Eek! These evil creepy crawly creatures have eaten all my Italian parsley! Need to debug my garden apparently…”. Of course I replied that it was cool and explained to her who they were and what it represented, i.e., a beautiful crop of butterflies!

Few people approach gardening (flower beds and food) like Kent and I do. We garden for insects (check out the recent post about all the beneficial insects in our garden)! For whatever reason, people love to enjoy butterflies, but miss the fact that the caterpillars have to feed on something to grow and develop into the adult stage – the butterfly. With that in mind, consider what insects you would enjoy in your yard and plant their host plants. For instance, if you like monarch butterflies – plant some milkweeds.

So the next time you find a bunch of caterpillars on your flowers, be like my friend Margaret, and celebrate them – take one for the team and let have what they are feeding on! And if you are really lucky you may find a chrysalis that you can bring in and watch the butterfly emerge!

The second photo posted by Margaret shows total parsley destruction by the caterpillars - how cool is that?

The second photo posted by Margaret shows total parsley destruction by the caterpillars – how cool is that?

By the way, in case you are curious as to what happened with Margaret’s parsley…she said, “I decided to love, not hate, my swallowtail caterpillars”, and she looked at her garden as a “butterfly hatchery”. Unfortunately, her parsley it was decimated, but as one of her friends commented – “nobody actually eats the parsley anyway!”

Butterfly and vehicle interactions

As a cyclist, it is common to encounter animals that have been struck and killed by cars along roads. It appears the frequency with which these encounters are made is influenced by traffic volume, traffic speed, and quality of roadside habitat. While a big, bloated deer or reeking skunk will attract the attention of the most unaware road users – the carnage is not limited to mammals. Striking insects with a car is inconsequential to a motorist and it is not until the carnage has reached epic proportions that the motorist takes note and the windshield wipers will be engaged. Otherwise insect collisions are meaningless to most motorists.

Butterflies can be a common part of the roadside insect milieu. McKenna et al. (2001) estimated that 20 MILLION Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) were killed in one week on the Illinois road network.

Recently, while out on my bicycle, I noted a dark swallowtail dead on the shoulder along highway 45E south of Martin, TN. The Lepidoptera fauna from this part of Tennessee is

30 June 2013, highway 45E, Weakley County, Tennessee

30 June 2013, highway 45E, Weakley County, Tennessee

poorly known, so I doubled back and documented the insect with my cell phone. This photograph was submitted to BAMONA, and provided documentation of Papilio troilus in Weakley County. The simple documentation of species within an area is the first step in conserving species.

The riders in the Tour de France are probably not looking for dead insects along roadways as they ramble through the French countryside and I would hate to see the peloton crash because a leader saw a cool roadkill butterfly (like Parnassius apollo). However, the Tour de France does go through some spectacular habitats and this year’s tour has had quite a few crashes already…

Keep your eyes open and be safe!

Update on Monarchs

Recently I posted on the plight of the monarch butterfly. Today I was looking at some

30 June 2013 Obion County, Tennessee

30 June 2013 Obion County, Tennessee

Asclepias syriaca (milkweed) in a ditch bank in Obion County, Tennessee. I am pleased to report that in addition to numerous Tetraopes tetropthalmus, i found one Danaus plexippus (monarch) caterpillar! While this doesn’t represent a complete recovery, it is significantly more than zero caterpillars. I keep looking – I hope you will too!

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.













Harrisina americana

The Zygaenidae are a moth family I do not have a good handle on. From what I have read

20 April 2013, West Monroe, Louisiana

20 April 2013, West Monroe, Louisiana

they are primarily tropical and all members are capable of producing Hydrogen Cyanide as a defensive chemical.

I had the pleasure of documenting Harrisina americana, for Ouachita Parish for BAMONA while visiting in Louisiana recently. It was sitting quietly on a Lantana leaf and allowed easy cell phone photography. Sharing your Lepidoptera photos with BAMONA helps document ranges of moths in North America – the first step in conserving such!

I would expect a poisonous moth to be much more colorful, but I guess “orange and black – stay back Jack” still applies. I have much more to learn about this moth family, now that I am living in the Southeast, maybe I can find more members of this family.