Category Archives: Insects

Bed Bugs

I have identified numerous bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) in the past few years, but I have never found my own. My first bed bug encounter was when I stayed at the Mizpah Hut in New Hampshire in 1976. The hiking was amazing. I did not get to see bed bugs, but a couple of the people I was with had marks that told of their nocturnal encounters with Cimex.

I first became aware of the resurgence of bed bugs in 2006 when Kelly Tindall showed me some live bed bugs that had been brought into the Twin Falls County (University of Idaho) Extension office. Since then it seems everywhere I go there are bed bugs, that other people show me for identification or confirmation of their identification.

2014-01-28 19.13.26-1Recently, Kelly and I were staying at the Stoney Creek Inn in Johnston, Iowa and in our initial room survey Kelly found a beautiful, adult bed bug and I got to see a bed bug in ‘the wild’. I am sure I will get to find my own before too long…

To learn how to avoid and deal with bed bugs I highly recommend this video. The bed bug registry allows you to see if hotels and apartments have had reported bed bug incidents, but not all incidents are reported.

The really cool thing about bed bugs is they depend on us. They have evolved to feed on our blood and have been associated with us for a very long time. They like us, they really like us, but their love of us is unrequited.

Everything poops!

Often, biologists identify animals by their sign. This can be the characteristic scratches some species leave on trees, a unique nest, or some other artifact. Often this artifact is poop. It is no big secret, that when it comes to animals, everything poops. Today, as I was processing dung beetles from some samples from 2011, I came across something I have never had the opportunity to see before – dung beetle poop – specifically Onthophagus taurus poop. This is a poop made by animal that eats poop, or poop squared.

2014-01-01 10.00.40The specimen in question must have defecated when it hit the antifreeze that I use in the pitfall trap and then the poop remained excreted, but attached, through the alcohol storage and subsequent pinning before microscope examination for specific determination. Needless to say, this is a most auspicious start to a new year that I hope will be filled with exciting discoveries!

I hope that 2014 is filled with interesting and wonderful discoveries for all of you also – HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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.

There is no substitute for using the correct key

Dichotomous keys are wonderful things. In addition to increasing your vocabulary with words like piceousfistulous, and about 7,000 different words for plant hairs (e.g. dolabriform); dichotomous keys can give one the ability to identify any species with certainty… almost. Some keys are written with characters that don’t provide much separation (e.g. structure length is 5 – 7 mm or 6 – 8 mm – and your organism’s structure is 6.5 mm), or with relativistic characters (e.g. species X tends to be shinier than species Y – and of course you have only one), or uses male characters only (and you only have female specimens), but most keys work amazingly well.

An important activity after arriving at an identification from a key is to read about the species identified and ask: does this information fit what I know about my specimen? In other words don’t blindly accept that just because you have struggled through a key, you have reached the correct conclusion. I have found that when you are right, it feels right. If you are unsure, better double check or (better still) get an expert to confirm your identification if one is handy. 

I have been collecting dung beetles for a while and have tried to force scarabs (or near scarabs) into the wrong key before. This never works. Well today I discovered I was doing it again. After forcing this 2013-12-10 11.35.17-1little guy again and again into Gordon and Skelley (2007) Aphodiini of the United States and Canada with unhappy results, I finally went to American Beetles Vol. 2 and found the reason I was getting such poor results was that this beetle is in the tribe Eupariini, not Aphodiini. If I had used the key in the front of Gordon and Skelley (2007) I would have discovered this right off the bat. The cool thing is the correct key is available for download from the Smithsonian – alleviating this problem for all sorts of folk throughout the country. Tomorrow I hope to enjoy this key…

A bit of animated lichen

On this fine, first day of December 2013, Kelly Tindall and I were out and about in Milan, TN. Like most of you when outdoors, I was watching tree bark very closely and saw a tiny piece of lichen move with that characteristic ‘hidden insect’ motion used by stick insects and the like.

A bit of animated lichen

A bit of animated lichen

Now, I always enjoy a good nature blog post where the writer is able to name everything in the blog post no matter how obscure. I thought that my finding an animated bit of lichen on 1 December 2013 on the bark of Magnolia grandiflora was pretty cool. I knew I could not name the lichen species involved in the shelter, and figured the tiny larva was going to remain unknown. Still that insects (e.g. Cercopidae and Trichoptera) can build shelters is amazing and that these shelters can be camouflage also is a two birds/one stone sort of deal – and I thought this provided an opportunity to share that nugget of wonder. Another cool bit is that the lichens appear to remain alive, so the insect could actually be a dispersal mechanism for the lichen…

The insect was so tiny, but i wanted Kelly to see it move, so we ended up bringing it home. In the truck on the way home we played guess the larva. I was driving (a major handicap in this game) and Kelly quickly deduced it was Neuroptera

When the lichen bit is flipped over and you wait a bit you can see the insects face (from underneath).

When the lichen bit is flipped over and you wait a bit you can see the insects face (from underneath).

and remembered that some Chrysopidae have debris carrying larvae. When we got home, I ran to the microscope to see how amazingly cool this insect is. The photo at left is taken holding my cell phone to the eyepiece of my microscope – it is what you get. It would be better if you could come over and see it, but the photo is easier to share. I tried to take a video of it moving under the microscope, but that was awful. Tomorrow I will put the insect out on a lichen covered tree.

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 http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org – 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…

Atteva aurea

Atteva aurea is a cute little moth that feeds as a larva on the introduced ornamental tree, Ailanthus

Atteva aurea on wall of gas station Martin, TN - 10 July 2013

Atteva aurea on wall of gas station Martin, TN – 10 July 2013

altissima, in the Eastern U.S. and Canada.  Ailanthus altissima is from the orient, so I had always assumed the moth that feeds on it was too. The real story is much better.

As Vitor Becker explains in “A review of New World Atteva Walker moths (Yponomeutidae, Attevinae)”:

The presence of aurea in the eastern United States and Canada and its association with Ailanthus altissima (Mill.) (Simaroubaceae) is an interesting subject to be investigated. This plant is an ornamental introduced from Asia and now considered one of the most serious weeds in the United States. It was first planted near the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1784 (W. Thomas, pers. comm.) and from there it spread over the entire country. Once it reached southern Texas, where presumably aurea was already present, the moth started to move north. By 1856 it had reached Georgia, as indicated by the material described by Fitch (1856: 486). Riley (1869: 151) found it common in Missouri, feeding on ailanthus. These records indicate that this showy and common moth was absent in the region before the introduction of Ailanthus, and the approximately 70-year gap between the introduction of the host, to the first record of the moth by Fitch, is the time it took the plant to move south and the moth to move north.”

Ailanthus altissima is in the plant family Simaroubaceae.  The native hosts that A. aurea is known to use are: Castela peninsularis, C. polyandraC. emory, Simarouba amara and S. glauca – all in the family Simaroubaceae. So an introduced plant from the orient helped a tropical moth to colonize eastern North America. A much different story than I originally thought.