Monday, July 21, 2014

Mystery Beetle Image

Sometimes I receive photos for insect identification that are less than perfect. This one came from a biological survey in the Ajo Mountains of Sonora Mexico. The main topic of the photo was the Echinocereus  pseudopectinatus flower and the beetle was only discovered when the photo was edited. So it was very distorted and  nobody could go back to take a proper dorsal shot.

Since the photo was taken across the border of Mexico, in fact just south of the Chiricahua Mountains of Cochise County, AZ, I was not allowed to post it on BugGuide - I had been seriously chastened for doing so before. We take our political borders seriously here!  
So I posted it on facebook where I can luckily draw on the brain power of coleopterists like Henry Hespenheide, Mike Quinn and friend Robert Velten and Art Evans who just published another great book on beetles.

After posting the photo, I went outside to photograph the big yellow flowers of a little barrel cactus with very long spines - not our local species but one of my xerophytic imports that like the desert here well enough to bloom. It may be Ferocactus rectispinus from Baha California.

When I noticed some small beetles in those flowers I crawled closer through spiny ironwood branches and thorny agave clusters. There were mating pairs of small elongate beetles with dark stripes along the elytra: a tiny species of buprestids (Metallic Woodboring Beetles) in the genus Acmaeodera. I recognized them from the desert museum, where I had found them on yellow composite flowers like Desert Marigolds. They are Acmaeodera quadrivittatoides  Obviously, plant a yellow July-bloomer, and they'll come, even if it is a slightly outlandish species of cacti. I suddenly remembered the mystery photo which also had been taken on a cactus flower. In German we say 'der Groschen ist gefallen' when we have the sudden aha-effect that I experienced.

Acmaeodera quadrivittatoides
When I opened my fb page again, the experts there  had reached the solution a while before me and without Mother Nature's prompting, but at least we all arrived at the same solution. Great minds...


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Madera Canyon during a monsoon storm

Chalcolepidius lenzi
 I went back to Madera Canyon to fill a wish list for some beetle friends. This time the possibility for showers was down to 30%, but I had hardly reached the desert broom bushes by the 'toll booth' when a storm rolled in.  I tried the 'wide-angle-macro-with-background that Piotr Nascrecki is making so popular - did not quite get the lead-in diagonal, but I like it anyway.

Climaciella brunnea (Wasp Mantidfly)
 I then found another mantisfly. While the last one was brown and resembled very much our dark form of Polistes major castaneicolor, this one, a female, sported the colors of Polistes dorsalis or maybe P. aurifer. One of those wasps was sitting only inches away. When it began to poor I grabbed the mantispid but not the wasp to hide in the car. The insect flew to the window and watched the falling drops while cleaning its antennae. After a short video was filmed the rain stopped and the mantispid flew out.
By now it was time to find a good spot for the lights. I decided to try the very top parking lot above the gazebo. A mistake, because this time the rain move with me and the lingered around the top.

Eacles oslari
 So I left my light up there and drove down to look at someonelse's  set-up at Kubo Cabins. Ther it was at least dry and a little warmer, so there were not only all three Chrysina species but also a beautiful fresh Silk Moth, Eacles oslaris.

On the wet road in front of that cabin a snake was just about swimming in the water that was still standing on the asphalt. I tried to photograph it, but the reflection from the flash was too distracting. I shooed the snake into the leaf litter by the side of the road.

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis pyromelana
 After I blocked his way a couple of times to slow him down, he stretched upwards to check out the camera lens and seemed very interested in the focal beam which of course did not help the little point and shoot to focus.

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis pyromelana
 The snake then hid in full side between three rocks and allowed me to take some more photos and also to touch his cool, smooth coils. A beautiful Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake 

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis pyromelana
My patients was rewarded. When it finally stopped raining, a nice number of scarabs, cerambycids and even silk moths found their way to my sheet. I did find all the species that I was looking for and a few more.

My sheet at 9:30 pm

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Madera Canyon in July 2014

Last Friday I took some members of the Sabino Canyon Naturalists on a mini 'Bug Safari' to one of my favorite canyons. Madera Canyon stretches from the grasslands in Pima County  up to the high elevations of the Santa Ritas in Santa Cruz County.
In the late afternoon we collected and photographed in the grassland, mainly around the famous 'sap-oozing' Desert Broom bushes. The first rains had come down a few days earlier and the monsoon parties on the cracked branches were in full swing.

Giant Agave Bug, Acantocephala thomasi

Longhorn Tragidion densiventre and Scarab Euphotria leucographa
There were at least three species of paper wasps sharing with several species of scarabs, longorn beetles and Giant Agave Bugs.

Cricket Hunter Chlorion sp. and Fig Beetle Cotinis mutabilis
As always, the charismatic Chlorion Wasps, the Cricket Hunters got the most attention. But those shiny green Fig Beetles are also very pretty.

Climaciella brunnea (Wasp Mantidfly) and Apiomerus spissipes (Bee Assassin)

Pasimachus californicus
Bee assassins and a rare brown Wasp Mantispid were the most obvious predators in the mix, but we also found a nice ground beetle, a Pasimachus californicus.

Whiskered Screech Owl babies, photo by Lois Manowitz
At sunset we moved from the grasslands into the canyon. On the way we stopped under a big old sycamore. A pair of baby owls were peaking out of their nest hole, but only the top of their heads was visible. Whiskered Screech Owls! I have no camera for dusk conditions, but my friend Lois had visited the same nest and she had some great shots to share!

Now it only has to get dark!

In the meantime, we pick nick. Guess who forgot to tell everyone to wear dark colors for this adventure!

The Mercury Vapor light illuminates the gazebo in ghostly green, and a sunset storm is hanging over Green Valley
Under the gazebo between the top parking lots we hung a bed sheet, a Mercury Vapor and a UV light, all powered by my brand new generator. At this elevation Emory and Silver Leaf Oaks dominate, interspersed with a few Alligator Junipers.

Macrodactylus uniformis (Western Rose Chafer) and Lycus simulans below
While waiting for the insects to arrive at the sheet, we had a pick nick and then hunted with flashlights. On Desert Broom bushes we found great clusters of mating netwing beetles, Lycus arizonicus and Lycus simulans. In some instances the aggregations consisted of both, netwing beetles and Rose Chafers.

Ascaloptynx appendiculata, Vella fallax,
Dicromantispa sayi

At the light things were still a little slow for this usually rich location, but we soon had an owlfly, 2 different mantispids, and the largest AZ antlion, so the family Neuroptera was very well represented.

Arachnis aulaea and Apocrisias thaumasta (Tiger Moths), Artace colaria, Lappet Moth
 Moths were disappointingly few but we had at least 2 nice tigermoths and a big white  lappet moth. Most big moths fly late at night, but a sudden strong wind ended our light trapping at 9:30 pm, so we may have missed the sphingids and saturniids.

Strategus cessus, Prionus californicus

Chrysina beyeri and C. lecontei
 Big black hornless Ox Beetles (Strategus cessus) tumbled around the light, and 2 or 3 species of Prionids arrived. The Jewel Scarabs were represented by Chrysina beyeri and lecontei, gloriosa surprisingly missing. I found 2 beetles of that species later at a light at Kubo Cabins.

Phyllophaga vetula and Dichotomius colonicus
Many different June bugs genus Phyllophaga were feeding and mating on the oaks around us and soon showed up at the sheet. Several tiny and one big dung beetle soon joined them.

Scorpion under flash light and uv light photos Suzi and Steve Manthorpe
 At 9:30 heavy gusts of wind forced us to quit. Some of us went to carry back the sheet and light that I had placed deeper in the forest next to the dry creek bed. As they came back with news about a scorpion hiding under the sheet, we all marched down to see it fluoresce in the light of my little portable uv light. The effect was amazing: it turned from brown at visible light wavelength to bright luminescent green. The camera, however, saw turquoise.   

Polyphylla hammondi and Cotalpa consobrina
On the way home I stopped along the pecan plantations of Continental Ranch to look for Strategus aloeus, but I found only the golden Cotalpa consobrina and several Polyphylla hammondi males.
Those always remind me of our German Maikaefer that we loved so much as children.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Night of the Desert Queen Peniocereus greggii

Last night the flowers on our backyard Queen of the Night (Peniocereus greggii) finally opened. The flowers were small but perfect. They seemed to glow in the light of the full moon and their sweet fragrance floated on the humid, warm air of this monsoon night.

 A single small moth was visiting. Even at my black light, this still is a moth-poor time. Last year I noticed that many queen flowers wilted away without producing fruit. The reason could have been a lack of pollinators. But last night I found a longhorn beetle obviously doused in pollen. I'm sure he came to the sweet smell and found the nectar and will also distribute the pollen.

I went back in the very early morning hours to find more blooming plants. The first thing I noticed was that our backyard flowers had already closed up, usually a sign that they are pollinated.

I walked across about half a square mile of state trust land. Many of the plants that were blooming last year were resting this season. The wild native Queen cacti whose branches are thin and not very succulent rely mainly on  big underground tubers for survival during droughts. After a year with many flowers and fruit, the above-ground stems often shrivel and dry up. New sprouts emerge from the ground but rarely bloom for the first two years.

But I found about a dozen new plants that I had not known before. Many were small and had only a single flower, but some were as tall as I, with big, antler-shaped stems and up to a dozen flowers.
Of course the pollinators may be drawn to the flowers by the sweet fragrance, but I, being a visual creature, scan the area for the pale white spots that barely clear the branches of the creosote bushes. The color seems perfect to reflect the uv part of the lunar spectrum. So the big mobile sphinx moths can probably also do a long distance visual scan, even at night.

This morning however, I found even the wilting flowers inundated by honey bees that were obviously still getting their fill. Every plant was surrounded by dozens of honey bees. This is very different from last year, when I found little Agapostemon sweatbees but no Apis melifera at all.
I think I know the explanation: the winter of 2012/13 brought several nights of deep freeze. Well provisioned honey bee hives in Europe are able to keep the temperatures high enough during cold spells to allow the majority of bees to survive. Africanized honey bees usually sustain much greater losses. Small feral hives (many Africanized bees tend to split hive and swarm more frequently than Italian honey bees) are even less cold resistant. So while Africanized bees can usually survive Arizona winters as feral colonies, the winter of 2012/13 had pretty much wiped out the local population. But now, after the very warm winter of 2013/14, they are back in force.
The Queen of the Night is by timing and color the very opposite of a bee flower, but those feral honey bees have great scouts and are fast learners - I think they found all the wilting flowers today and carried off all the drags.    

I did not ask any dogs to join me on my NBC quest, but after a while I noticed that Cody had quietly joined me. We walked all over together, until he finally got tired of my meandering from plant to plant. He might have felt too weak to go on and returned home as quietly as he had come out. This was our last walk together and the photo above is the last one I took of our most beloved dog. A week later, Cody died.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Longhorned and Shorthorned Denizens of the Oracle Ridge Trail

The Oracle Ridge high in the Catalina Mts. (above 8000 feet) has been one of my favorite trails for years, even after it was hit hard by the devastating Aspen Fire in 2004. The slopes that were once covered in soft green Robinia neomexicana are still covered in the silvery skeletons of those trees, but thickets of young Gambel's Oaks are beginning to fill in the open spaces.

Today I was up there with 'Ned's Friends' a group of undiscouregable Sabino Canyon naturalists who last through the Arizona summer and even enjoy it. No, it's not a DRY heat anymore. Although the narrow trail is a challenge with a large group like that, we watched Spotted Towhees, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Western Bluebirds, Acorn Woodpeckers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and many other species of birds. But the day was overcast, so insects and reptiles were slow to wake up.

But when we found several sleeping male Longhorn Bees, we couldn't let them, startled, the little guy released his mandibular and tarsal grip and took off. People said they needed a dictionary to understand me. Must be my accent.

Parry's Agaves were in bloom along the crest of the mountain ridge and Mexican Cactus Flies Tarantula Hawks were nectaring. The male wasps also engaged in 'hill-topping' a behavior that is characteristic for their courtship.

Left: longhorn beetle Tragidion deceptum   Right: tarantula hawk, spider wasp, Pepsis sp. 
I tried to catch one, unconcerned because the males have no stinger. But what I found was no wasp at all, but a beetle that mimicked the wasps not only in color and shape, but also by walking, wings raised up, in those short energetic bursts of speed that are typical for hunting spider wasps. A female in the longhorn beetle genus Tragidion. Ian Swift later identified it a Tragidion deceptum.


A huge click beetle Chalcolepidius apacheanus was sunning himself on a smooth log. Somebody called him a roach (??). He looked fresh and perfect as if just emerged from the pupa 

We also found hundreds of Convergent Ladybeetles that had moved from the heat of the low desert to the cool mountain tops. Do these individuals eventually go back down? Or do they live out their short lives up there?  

Blue Pleasing Fungus Beetles are year round residents of the mountain forests. Adults and larvae feed on fungi that develop on the burnt trees, but I noticed that their numbers had declined considerably since I was last on this trail in 2012. 

10 years after the fire the nutrients in the dead trees are probably finally used up. So their were much fewer of the large woody shelf fungi than before. Instead we found soft little fruit bodies of brightly orange Nectria Cinnabarina on the dead upright trees and numerous earthstars in the decayed wood mulch on the ground. 

And here are the shorthorned critters that I promised in the title: We found some of the nicest Greater Shorthorned Lizards that I have seen so far. Actually the biggest one, nearly the size of the palm of my hand and silver gray, would have nothing to do with my camera and ran right into the spiniest  agave on the steepest part of the trail. But the two kids were perfect little hams, posing and making faces.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Nature Poetry

Rudolf Baumbach (1840-1905)
Die Gäste der Buche

Mietegäste vier im Haus
hat die alte Buche:
Tief im Keller wohnt die Maus,
nagt am Hungertuche.
Stolz auf seinen roten Rock
und gesparten Samen,
sitzt ein Protz im ersten Stock;
Eichhorn ist sein Namen.
Weiter oben hat der Specht
seine Werkstatt liegen,
hackt und hämmert kunstgerecht,
dass die Späne fliegen.
Auf dem Wipfel im Geäst
pfeift ein winzig kleiner
Musikante froh im Nest.
Miete zahlt nicht einer.

I remember learning this poem by heart and drawing the illustrations for my grandfather's seventieth birthday. I was 8 then and growing up in Germany. Today, I could still remember most of the verses, surprisingly, and google came to my help for the rest. The poem is about an old Beech Tree and the animals making it their home. Mouse and squirrel, woodpecker and warbler ...  Beech forest is the climax plant society of the Westfalian  low land where we lived and where I spent most of my free time exploring the forest. The poem reflects a romantic love for nature but also some ecological understanding. But translated into English it just sounds corny, so I won't even try. 
But, now living in Tucson, Arizona, I feel very much reminded of that childhood poem when I watch the coming and going of birds, squirrels, insects and reptiles in and around our big 'house saguaro' that so many animals rely on for food and nest sites.