Sunday, November 21, 2010

Florida Canyon Buprestids - a last Hurrah in late November

On November 20th Randy and I loaded four of our five dogs into the bed of my little pick up truck with camper shell, but the fifth, our Husky Tana, run off to visit the neighbors instead. She missed a beautiful autumn hike in Florida Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. Florida (pronounced floor-EE-da in this part of the country) is the Spanish word for "flowered". Of course, November is not quite the right time to experience that aspect of the canyon.

Great Purple Hairstreak
Chauliognathus profundus

Tachypompilus unicolor

When I discovered this area two weeks ago, at least the Desert Broom along the dirt road that connects Box and Florida Canyon was still in bloom and attracted scores of wasps, butterflies, beetles, and grasshoppers.  But even those bushes had gone to seed by now.

The rocky dry creek bed under its dense canopy of Mexican Blue Oaks (Quercus oblongifolia) where I had found several interesting grasshoppers now also seemed quite abandoned by insects.

The hiking trail begins next to the Florida Work Center of the Santa Rita Experimental Range. The range, the first of its kind in the country, was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 to study recovery efforts on land that suffered from the devastating effects of overgrazing and drought.

Following the creek and its gallery of 400 year-old oaks, we hiked through lush grassland towards the juniper-oak-pine forest of the higher elevations.

 The dry grasses still carried their feathery plumes, golden in the light of the low sun.
Only Cody’s tail rivaled the effect. All four dogs loved exploring the unfamiliar terrain.

 Rusty old stock tanks held only a few inches of water. Tadpoles and insect larvae were moving in the murky green soup and made us wonder whether they would find their way out in time. As we started to feel the strain of the steady climb we marveled at the miles of partly buried metal feeder  line that brought water from the mountain top: what a plumbing job.

It was a cool day by Arizona standards, but we welcomed the shady forest of the higher elevation.  Here oaks, pines and junipers dominated in shades of cool bluish greens. By contrast, the golden foliage of a few sycamores and mountain ashes seemed to glow from within.

Agaves, Sotols and Yuccas added some spiky silvery accents.

Eventually we reached clearings and openings that had been created by a fire that swept through the canyon in 2005. Beautiful skeletal remains are still recognizable as those of Aligator Junipers and various species of oaks, and even of the rare Madrones.

Fresh growth around the dead trunks announces that the roots survived and the trees are coming back.

We didn’t quite make it to the 7,800 feet high Florida Saddle but climbed a lower hilltop – to enjoy the great view over the Santa Cruz valley, eat some apples, let the dogs rest, and maybe see some hill-topping insects? It was quite cool and windy…

Lampetis webbii LeConte 1858.
A big insect appeared. I heard the low buzz and saw a blurr of dark and lighter stripes out of the corner of my eyes and mistook it for a big paper wasp. But the heavy body that was hanging upside down from in the leaves of one of those fire damaged oaks was unmistakeably that of a buprestid beetle.

 Loose rows of golden spots reflected the sunlight, but he most striking feature were the electric blue legs and feet: Either Drummond's or Webb's Blue-footed Buprestid. Buprestids are called jewel beetles in Europe with good reason: they are beautiful. Their ponderous and prosaic American name Flat-headed Metallic Wood-boring Beetle points to their biology: While the adults live on pollen or sweet juices, the larvae of the larger species live mostly in the sap or core wood of trees. The flat thoracic segments of these legless larvae are what’s described by 'flat-headed'. The cross-sections of their tunnels (galleries) and the exit holes are broad ovals while those of Cerambycids are more round. Buprestids attack mostly weakened or damaged trees. The females of some species are so attracted to the smell of fire that they fly nearly into the flames of a forest fire to lay their eggs.

Last September, the manager of the Little Outfit Ranch in the Canelo Hills had collected a couple of  Lampetis  for me, also from a fire damaged oak, but this one in Florida Canyon was the first that I saw in the wild. As for the species:  
Lampetis drummondi and Lampetis webbii
Lampetis drummondi that were collected further east in Texas, New Mexico and Cochise County Arizona have spots that are nearly fused into irregular bands. The specimen above, left, was collected by Jason Schaller in Texas Canyon, Cochise County, in late July of 2010. My specimens of L. webbii from Montosa Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains and theLittle Outfit Ranch in the Canelo Hills, AZ  have clearly independent spots. It seems to me that in the larger females of L. webbii the spots that are more lined up than in the smaller males but always distinctly separated. So my Florida Canyon guy is also L. webbii.  The host plant for that species is supposedly the Palo Verde of the lower desert, but none of the beetles was found in habitats where those occur, instead all were associated with fire damaged oaks.

Hippomelas sphenicus
On our way back through grassland interspersed with small bushes of Velvet-pod Acacia Randy spotted another big Buprestid: Hippomelas sphenicus. From early October to mid November these beetles could be found all over the lower parts of the western Santa Rita Canyons. They met on the acacias to mate and probably lay their eggs. Surprisingly for Buprestids, they were especially active at sunset.

Tree Cricket Oecanthus sp.
The musical song of the Tree Crickets accompanied us all afternoon. David Ferguson commented: 'I suspect it is of the O. californicus "group", and likely of the "pictipennis" segregate, which seems to like to sit in (and probably feed on) Junipers and perhaps Piñons.'

The last few Arizona Thistles were visited by so many Mexican Yellows Eurema mexicana that the butterflies sometimes looked like flower petals.

After a great exhausting day we were greeted at home by our wayward Husky who was waiting in the driveway and very happy to have her pack-mates back.


  1. Wonderful - I've not yet encountered L. webbii myself. As for the larval host record, I'd sure like to see Burke's nearly 100-year old record from Cercidium verified. In fact, nobody has apparently found the larva of any North American Lampetis (the putatively identified one that I found in living Salix notwithstanding).

  2. I've asked around here at the entomology department of the UofA and everybody spontaneously said they found them in the oak belt of our AZ mountains. Palo Verde and willows are usually not around there, except in the Canelo Hills case, where there is a pond and willows close to the lightning struck oak on which my friend found four individuals in September.

  3. I'll bet they're boring below the soil line in the trunk and main roots of the half living trees - that's about the only way something that large and conspicuous can go unreared.

  4. There were big bup holes in the half-dead oak on the Ranch where I got my first ones. About eye-level as I remember.

  5. Those were likely Polycesta arizonica (or if you're lucky Chrysobothris chalcophoroides).

  6. Beautiful country - what a hike! That Lampetis webbii is really gorgeous. Your photos are great - I love being able to look at all the great (but tiny) detail.

  7. Very nice blog and very handsome beetles!