Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Weekend of Rare Cerambycids

This week a visit of my friend and co-author of the Arizona Beetle Book in preparation, Dr. Arthur Evans, and Pat Sullivan's annual Infestation party for entomologists promised a lot of fun field work and the probable discovery of more species to photograph for our book  (is that good or bad by now?) But the first exciting news came actually from a herpetologist and facebook friend in Clinton, Greenlee County, AZ. Terry Johnson informed us that 5 specimens of a striking looking Longhorn Beetle had been found there, and he got photos for us and promised me a specimen.

Megaderus bifasciatus, found in Clinton, Greenlee County, AZ
 Robert Velton identified the beetle as Megaderus bifasciatus. There were some few reports of this mainly Mexican and central American species from SE Arizona and from Texas. So I was quite happy, looking forward to adding this striking species to the AZ Beetle Book. But Terry's discovery coincided with the reviewing process of a paper whose authors were doubting that any of those old observations were valid. Luckily our community is small and close-knit so they were informed of the find and right now they are asking good questions about the provenance.. Five living specimens in situ are not easily explained as mislabeled or misidentified,  but were they maybe found right next to a pile of imported logs? That would raise the suspicion that they were recent adventives. I will report the result of this interesting story as soon as I know it.

Mecas menthae. on  Salvia leucantha
 Meanwhile, we had our potluck feast at Pat's and I was working off some calories in his beautiful garden that slopes up the side of Ramsey Canyon behind his house.  While picking mainly small leaf beetles from his perennials, all chosen for their attractiveness to insects I am sure, I came across a little grey Cerambycid wit anulated antennae. If it had been on a sunflower leave, I would have disregarded it as  the well-known Dectes texanus. But I have learned to trust the botanical knowledge of bugs implicitly.  I also remembered that lately a friend had compared species in the two Flat-faced Longhorn genera Dectes and Mecas because they resemble each other. Bingo! Genus Mecas! I showed it to Steven Lingafelter and with the help of Pat's house-synoptic collection, we had the species: Mecas menthae. Sure enough, not only did the plant turn out to be Salvia leucantha (Mexican Sage) in the Mint Family (Labiaceae) but we found 5 more specimens on the bush, making it clear that the beetles do consider it as their host plant.

After a trip to Copper Canyon where our lights were inundated with scarabs from tiny Diplotaxis to sturdy  Phileurus truncatus and Strategus aloeus and a restful night's sleep in the back of my Subaru
I visited the garden again. This time I found a nice number of leaf beetle species on Sacred Datura and some morning glories whose leaves were just about skeletonized.

Elytroleptus luteus in situ
But then a little streak of orange on a leave of a tall evening primose where I had been watching pinhead sized jumping weevils. Another Cerambycid? Or a very narrow Netwing? From the expert came the e mail shout 'Holy cow, that is a fascinating beetle! ' We both tentatively talked of Elytroleptus sp., but none that we knew.  What Steven Lingafelter then found looked all wrong at first glance: A beetle not red, but yellow and even called E. luteus. But as an experienced collector and taxonomist he knows that dried specimens may change from red to yellow, and that species are sometimes described from dry museum specimens. Maybe the author was never lucky enough to see our bug alive and beautifully contrasted by a green leaf.  The other details, like proportions, leg coloration, and costae on the elytra fit very well. So I guess he got the correct id!

Elytroleptus luteus
Check out the distribution for this beetle: it just makes it across the Mexican Border into Arizona, but it's found all through Central America.

Longhorns in the genus Elytroleptus are considered mimics of toxic beetles in the family Lycidae whom they closely resemble.
Close to the Longhorn imitator, I found a Jumpingspider that was trying to take down one of the toxic Lycids. It released the beetle unharmed. I do not know if my camera disturbed it or if it found the beetle unpalatable.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Does the Palo Verde Rootborer really kill Palo Verde Trees?

Check your porch lights: It's Palo Verde Rootborer season in Tucson. The huge, up to 4 in long beetles emerge from the ground, mate at night, and lay eggs into or close to dead Palo Verde roots (and probably other trees, too).  
Like every year, friends tell me that 'tree people' claim that the beetles are responsible for the demise of many trees. I don't think these 'tree experts' have done much conclusive research to base this opinion on. What they see is a downed Palo Verde tree with beetle grubs around its roots. 

Palo Verde Root Borer Pupa

 Some larvae are big enough or already pupated to make an identification possible, and they are indeed Palo Verde Rootborers. But did the beetle larvae even really damage the tree roots? Palo Verde Rootborers are prionins. Most (not all) of this subfamily of Longhorns feed on dead wood, mostly even on decaying substrate like old stumps, not on living tissue. 

When water is very scarce, branches die and break off, decreasing the evaporative surface area. Note that for this tree leaves are a luxury, only present right after a very good rain fall. Photosynthesis is performed in the green bark of trunk and branches.
 For Palo verde trees, leaves are a luxury that they only enjoy right after productive rains. Most of the year, they rely for their photosynthesis on the green bark of trunk and branches. That means that the bark also has pores that cause evaporation. During droughts, there are no leaves to drop. So Palo verdes famously react to adverse conditions by dropping whole branches. The branches are dead before they break off, but the main trunk survives with the potential to regrow when the drought finally ends. Maybe under ground, roots that aren't reaching any water source are also cut off  and left to die. Carl A. Olson and several other knowledgeable folks assume that the Palo Verde larvae are primarily feeding on those dead or dying roots.
Consider that desert trees and desert beetles evolved together and the trees survived the onslaught of the beetles just fine for eons. Of course,  climate change could  make the trees more susceptible and tilt that equilibrium. It's possible.

Even the competition of a saguaro that used it as a nurse tree might eventually kill a Palo Verde if there is not enough water for both
Still, most of the trees probably primarily succumb to drought damage, competition for resources, attacks by CA root rot, wrong irrigation, overheated surroundings of asphalt and concrete, or other human induced factors. Besides, Palo Verde Trees do not live as long as Ironwoods, for example, anyway.

Notopleurus lobigenis, a cousin of Derobrachus hovorei, shares its appetites
 But the activity of the ominously big beetles happens under ground, out of sight. So, when a tree finally falls over and we can see pulled-up roots, it's usually a dead or dying tree. Which naturally has plenty of rotting roots, and  Palo Verde Root Borer larvae feeding on those. But what's the hen and what's the egg here? Nobody is any wiser.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A June Day on Mount Lemmon, Catalina Mountains close to Tucson

Wednesday morning: driving across town to join Debbie Bird and her Wednesday Walkers on Mount Lemmon at Turkey Run. Up there it's lush, green and so cool at above 8000 feet elevation while below the city sweltered under 106 degrees Fahrenheit

The drive through town took longer than expected, so we were late and nearly missed the sensation of the morning, a Rose-breasted Grossbeak. We got no photos, but I got a glimpse of this: the red breasted bird among the pink blooming Robinia. Striking!

Kira found everything scary and exciting. Either she had never seen tall trees, or she expected a bear behind every one of them. It made her edgy - she growled and barked at people and dogs. She has to learn that that's not like our dogs behave

It was her first walk away from her new home and she soon took her clues from Mecki.  He took good  care of her. The two got to walk by themselves, leash-law obedient: leashed to each other.

 When I had to lead them, photographing birds became a challenge. I remember that for this yellow-eyed Junko, I was holding the dogs with one hand, the little point-and-shoot camera in the other, fully extended for maximum zoom. I think bird, wind, and dogs must have moved in exact unison for once.

 Bill Kaufman was so kind to send me some of his excellent shots. The Red-faced Warblers were very active - we first thought that they were slipping around on the ground with quivering wings to distract us from a nest, but later I saw several rather small individuals do it and now I believe that some of them might have been very young fledglings.  

 Solitary Thrushes were singing, Stellar's Jays shrieking, and Flickers were loudly claiming the tallest dead trees, while the Hairy Woodpecker whispered only quietly in the understory.

 As usual, red Netwinged Beetles were flying or clinging to the young bracken fern leaves, sharing the undergrowth with the local Fireflies

Sabino Creek is only a small trickle up here, but its moisture is responsible for  all the beauty around Turkey Run. 

Monkey Flowers along the creek were hosting scores of leaf miners Octotoma marginicollis

A beautiful green eyed monster also made use of the water: A tabanid fly in the genus Stonemyia. Beautiful shots by Leslie Brown Eguchi.

Ephemeroptera (Mayflies) are completely dependent on water, because they spend 98% of their live as nymphs and most nymphs develop in streams and rivers that are well-oxygenated and relatively free of pollution; Don't expect mass emergences from the creeks of the Catalinas, but you can always find a few.  

Silver-spotted Skippers claimed territory along the creek, and a Satyr Comma landed a couple of times. 

Seinet photo Heracleum maximum
The creeks also nurture the huge leaves and flowers of Heracleum maximum, Horse Parsnip. The big umbels were in full bloom. There weren't as many insects on them as I would have expected, but still a great variety. 

A huge iridescent blue female Pepsis grossa on Heracleum - do they lick nectar or also feed on pollen? Maybe my video will tell. Many flowers make nectar hard to get, which limits the pollinators to a faithful few that coevolved with the flowers to master deep throats or convoluted access, see the monkey flower for example. Parsnip, and the one blooming white rosaceae, New Mexico Rasberry, Rubus neomexicanus seem to follow a different 'strategy' they offer pollen to beetles and wasps, to flies and butterflies, all of them generalists. How do they ensure that their pollen reaches another flower of the same species? On Mount Lemmon the answer seemed obvious: those two were extremely dominant in certain areas. So nectar seekers were quite likely to return to flowers of the same species and become good pollinators, even though they are typical generalists.

Altica sp. Flea Beetle

Fly, beetles, bee, and something too tiny for my camera on the left on Rubus

Lepturobosca chrysocomaon Heracleum

Lepturobosca chrysocoma on Rubus

Dermestid and Daysitinae (beetles) on Heracleum
Dozens of tiny weevils in Rubus
Grey Hairstreak on Heracleum
 Of course there were a few other flowers, too. little Snow Berry flower bells were attractive to certain flies

And Leslie climbed a slope under the pines to reach beautiful Shooting Stars - I've seen different species of these on high elevations and on poor, acidic soils in Swiss Alps before

So between lovely temperatures, great birds, beautiful flowers, a few bugs and great company, this was another lovely Wednesday Walk!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Roadrunner's Coming of Age

Roadrunners are bold, active birds. At times also very vocal, from a mechanical clicking sound that is repeated rapidly to a strange moaning sound that I could not attribute to any known bird or animal when I first heard it.

Young Roadrunner -note the short tail - chasing a lizard. This one easily escaped.
Roadrunners are THE caricature-characters of the desert Southwest. Together with the trickster coyote they are known to children around the world. And I must say, watching the real bird, with all its velociraptor fierceness, is much more interesting and even amusing than all those cartoons. Immediately after my arrival in the southwest, I experienced them as skilled, opportunistic predators who didn't refuse a juicy bug, grabbed tadpoles out of my aquarium, did not spare the occasional song bird, but also did not back off from a rattlesnake.

Photo by Doris Evans
This fierceness increases exponentially when a hungry brood is waiting. 
 My friend Doris Evans documented how even little chicks devoured whole lizards that the parents delivered to a nest in her yard. Compare that to the little bits of meat that mother hawk carefully feeds her chicks! Doris was lucky to have the nest so close to her window that she missed no details of the nursery. Over the years I watched two nests in Sabino Canyon, but from a safe distance: What was going on there was surprisingly quiet and secretive. Here at home, we see and hear all the preliminaries for nesting and breeding, like the gift-giving from male to female and the haunting, moaning cries that seem to claim a territory, but then it gets eerily quiet: the Roadrunner parents are not betraying the location of their nest and vulnerable young-ones by a lot of obvious activity. The nest is out in the open, if concealed by a prickly cholla cactus, and roadrunner chicks are born featherless and blind, so it takes a while for them to reach fledgling status.

But when the chicks are finally out of the nest, they soon carry on with the  typical boldness of their species.  First they mostly follow their parents around to noisily demand their lunch, but soon they begin to bother everything that's smaller than they and check it out for prey-value. They explore every place that could hide any morsels, including the inside of my parked car and my friend's computer desk. I have seen them watch the tail of my cat with the worst of intentions, and a friend who was hunting bugs for scientific, not culinary reasons, found them following him around, hoping for a hand-out?  The ones in Sabino Canyon seem to quickly learn the schedule of the tourist tram. I saw bits of hamburger tossed to them, which is of course absolutely wrong. Don't do it.

So my latest painting is about the hunger of the dragon brood. It sold as soon as I put it up on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

April in Cochise County

No bugs at all on Prickly Poppies, But maybe there's a painting in this?
 I had to drive to Hereford Arizona to discuss the color settings for the printing of tiles of my watercolors. So of course I took the opportunity to check how spring is progressing in the Huachucas. Clearly, it's very dry. Besides oaks, not much is blooming except close to paved roads where run-off nourishes at least a few prickly poppies and New Mexico Thistles.

A male Collops and some Nemognatha on the thistle heads
 Pat Sullivan's garden in Ramsay Canyon always offers something special, because he keeps planting all kinds of native blooming plants and some that are not quite native but just irresistible to bugs.  Of course he also waters them regularly.

On little flee bane flowers, we found baradine weevils that maybe Charlie O'Brian can identify ... there were so many of those that the yellow disk of some flowers was black with them.

Osmia sp.
Daleas were buzzing with green metallic bees that might be genus Osmia, but I'm waiting for confirmation. I'm proud of the accidental in-flight-shot! The captured specimen got contaminated with moth scales before it was photographed. Terrible stuff! I don't even collect any moths!

The nicest surprise was a little black, red banded Leaf Beetle, Lema balteata. Years ago Eric Eaton photographed  a mating pair in Catalina, also in a garden. Since then I've been searching for these elusive guys that look deceptively similar to our common Lema trabeata. On Kitt Peak, I thought I saw one on white blooming solanaceae, but it immediately disappeared.  I went back several times, and then the plants fell victim to gardening crews tending to the observatory. But maybe what I saw was just L. trabeata after all. The beetles in Pat's garden, 2 that I found and 3 in his collection, seem to prefer a sunflower with very narrow leaves (need to ask for the sp). They weren't close to any solanaceae at all.

Carr House
I drove up Carr Canyon and found it dryer than Ramsay. Very dusty along the road, so even the fresh oak leaves yielded nothing. At Carr House, I managed to get away from the road and things looked up.

Narnia sp. on Cholla fruit
 Three species of oaks were leafing out. Most hosted nearly no insects that I could find, but the ones that did offered many different species.

A clearing planted with young oaks and Alligator Junipers
 It seems to me that oaks, even of the same species, may contain very different levels of their main defense,  tannic acid. So some trees are just much more vulnerable than others and I have learned to look for those.

Leaf Beetles on young oaks: Pachybrachis haematodes, Octotoma marginicollis,  Xenochalepus ater, Pentispa suturalis
Brachys cephalicus
 There were several different Leaf Beetle species and a Brachys,  a leaf mining Buprestid. So not all Metallic Wood-boring Beetles are real borers . I think I'll use the European term "Jewel Beetle' instead

The nymphs of membracid Treehoppers, probably Cyrtolobus sp., would have been very well  camouflaged among the leaf buds of the oaks, but were given away by the dark shapes of ants that were hanging all over them.

Crematogaster sp. attending to a molting Cyrtolobus sp. nymph
 There were at least 2 species of ants in attendance, Honey-pot Ants and Acrobat Ants. In one case they seemed to assist in the molting of a nymph like a pair of concerned midwives.

So much productivity had of course attracted a number of predators, from still in-pupa Lady Bugs, to strangely elongate Robber Flies,   Leptogastrinae,  to jumping spiders and Little dark beetles, all of them in pairs, and shaped like melyridae.