Monday, September 26, 2011


So now it's over: all the planning, collecting, preparing, and the big day itself. We are all still amazed how incredibly well received the festival was. It seems that the Tucson community was just waiting and ready to come out on a beautiful, still rather hot Saturday morning to celebrate these small, but most numerous and  ecologically most important, fascinating creatures.

 So for the four hours from 8 to noon, we had a solid stream of thousands of visitors descending on our 25 tents.

Although it was the family weekend of the U of A, and a lot of our advertising used campus media, the majority of the visitors seemed to be young Tucson families with children. They may have come to treat the kids to a fun event, but most of the adults were as fascinated as the kids with our live insects and all the different aspects of insect live on display.

I spent most of the time behind the tables of the Insect Zoo, letting big Horse Lubbers, a Praying Mantis, and a Hercules Beetle  crawl onto peoples outstretched hands. Some of the big bugs jumped or flew up and landed on shoulders or heads, but surprisingly nobody flinched, and no insects were lost or trampled.  The crowd in front of our double booth was constantly at least five to six rows deep.

On a short walk around I found the other booths just as crowded. Lines in front of microscopes to see insect brains, people watching fritillary caterpillars chew clematis leaves or touching the soft skin of big hornworms,

brave ones tasting mealworms in salza and grasshoppers in chocolate chip cookies, kids creating their own bugs from play dough and pipe cleaners, cheering on their roaches in the insect olympics...

Beyond the fun, serious facts and information were offered at most booths. One just had to find a quiet moment.

Our live animal display did turn into the proverbial zoo, one could hardly exchange words over the din of voices (except Carl Olson: his voice training as a singer in the University choir payed off once again). So I hope the experience that our visitors took with them is that insects are interesting and beautiful and deserve a lot of follow-up observation and research.

I have placed many photos of the festival in my flickr files here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Hazards of Temporary Insect Zoo Keeping

This guy ( I hoped it was a male without a stinger, but Justin just sexed her: a big dominant future queen, I promise to take her back after the show), is circling the light in my office. She's one of the largest paper wasps I've ever seen and she got out of her enclosure when I tried to take her photo. Well, this is an entomology department in the last hours before the big event, the ARIZONA INSECT FESTIVAL. So nobody gets too excited about an escaped wasp.

While most scientists are going to show off their research in beautifully done posters and displays, Carl Olson and I and some other adventurous collegues are going to present life insects that we collected over the last weeks.

There are insect that are traditional easy keepers, like tenebrionid beetles, but since this is a short term venture, we tried our hands on some more unusual Arizona bugs.

We'll have more wasps, like this enomous Acanthochalcis nigricans and a bunch of Velvet Ants, and Justin Schmidt will be there to explain the pain index for their stings. Just in case...

Other challenges result from the short life span of insects - we found some really nice ones early in the season but not all of them made it or simply grew up too fast, so that instead of an interesting caterpillar we now just have a brown pupa to show...

Some bugs may not perform in public the fascinating behavior that we would like to demonstrate.

Others may behave too freely (most of them do).

Our Bee Assassin produced hundreds of eggs and now we have hundreds of 1mm long assassins - and what do we feed them?

No one can be trusted with smaller species in the same container. We knew that about the mantis, but the Plains Lubbers were supposed to be vegetarians (I should have listened to Carl)

The famous predatory scarabs and the prickly pear eating Cactus Weevils surprised with a very sweet tooth and a preference for apricots.

And someone developed serious star attitudes because he got to be on TV with Carl (Tucson Morning Blend Sep. 23, 2011)

We are sooo ready now! Hope to see you all tomorrow morning on the big lawn between Old Main and Student Union - 25 little whit tents are already set up!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stories in the Sand

Last week's violent monsoon storms brought life spending water but also destruction and death to Tucson. Yesterday I visited two of my collection spots on the Santa Cruz River and found the Disk Golf Park in Marana still completely submersed.

At Sanders Road Bridge the riverbed was scoured clean of any vegetation. In the aftermath of the flooding the waste water treatment plant must have stopped releasing any water, so all that was left  was a 500 feet wide corridor of bare drying sand and gravel with some uprooted salt cedars and burrow brush and no running water. Small fish were wiggling and dying in the last puddles while a few water bugs were making use of the easy pray.

 I was ready to go home, disappointed.

But then low sunlight and hard shadows brought to live the sandy surface itself, exposing deeply sculpted, cracking, and peeling textures of an eery beauty.

Smoother planes of sand and mud had preserved a log of all passing visitors.
Tracks, regular as pearls on a string, followed the riverbank: Perfect canine paw prints with at least the two middle toenails showing betrayed coyotes pacing, stopping to investigate ever so often.

 Round and firm,  showing no trace of the retractable claws, were the paw prints of a bobcat who had approached from behind some still standing vegetation, took one leap into the wet stuff and then walked away - I can just imagine the disgusted look on his big tom-cat face when he shook the mud from his paws.

 Herons had been stalking along the edges when there still was water, so their huge prints already looked washed out.

Smaller wading birds left strings of perfect marks, Killdeer running speedily from sand bank to sand bank.

 Little groups of impressions, regularly spaced about a foot apart turned out to be those of a wading bird that had stopped, probed several times with its beak the sand around his feed, than run forward to do the same again, and again... leaving these peculiar little groups of impressions. A Spotted Sandpiper or a Lesser Yellow Legs maybe? They used to be here.

 A very regular double row of imprints about 6 inches wide was left by an animal that steadily and unhesitatingly moved across all kinds of ground textures. The depth of the imprints changed between mud and loose sand, but not the rhythm of the machine-like motion. A turtle? Yes, the marks of his stiff claws were clearly preserved where he had crossed some harder, dryer sand.

Another paired row of imprints with a blurry middle line had to be that of a rat or big mouse. I think I can exclude reptiles as the source because a lizard that size would have left a sharper line where the tail dragged and the tracks would have followed a more undulating line.

I found surprisingly few five-fingered raccoon tracks. I know that a healthy  population lives along the river and at Sweetwater Wetlands, but maybe there was just not enough river left to make it attractive to them.

Closer to Sanders Road Bridge, the riverbed traffic had been most intense with humans and their companions  and livestock contributing.  So the deeper hoof tracks of the resident Black Angus herd intermingled here with hiking boot and dog paw prints.

There were no visible foot prints of arthropods (they can be very obvious in the finer sand of the dunes around Yuma) but ant and wasps had left their mark by quickly reconstructing mounds and burrows after the flood.

As a kid in Germany, I loved to look for tracks of roe deer and bunnies in the fresh snow around our house in the light of crisp, sunny winter mornings. The memory still makes me a little homesick, but reading the sands of the Santa Cruz River was a nice little surrogate.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My new Blog

I have started a new blog that I will use to showcase my Watercolor paintings  Please visit!

I call the blog Margarethe Brummermann Watercolors, hoping that people who are looking for my old website with that name may stumble upon it.

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But I will also post my new photography based Insect Collages and links to the entire collection on flickr. The blog will also have an event calender to keep you updated about upcoming art shows that I'm planning to participate in.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Finally real monsoon storms!

By the middle of September the best of the monsoon should be over. But this year the low pressure systems keep rolling in from the south. A couple of nights ago in Madera Canyon, we had to fold up our black lighting sheets early and on the drive down to Green Valley I could not tell where the road ended and the flooded wash began until the water pushed against the car, because it was raining so hard. 

At our own place north of Picture Rocks we had to wait till yesterday afternoon for a substantial down-poor. But then it came: dark clouds obscured the Tucson Mountains, and within 20 minutes we had more than half an inch of rain, no electricity, but an ongoing puddle that covered most of ten acres. 

 I heard a noise like from a car driving too fast on a wet road, except we have no real road and there were no cars out in the storm: the sound that was fast approaching was that of falling hail, ice balls with the diameter of a penny, bouncing hard of cacti and desert rocks and then pounding our roof.  

A little later the lovely sound of rushing water: our two regulatory washes were finally running again, after years without any water. Soon it would not have been possible to cross on foot on either side of the house. 

Of course, these floods don't last. The water level fell nearly as fast as it rose and we walked around in the great acrid smell of wet desert sand and creosote, waiting for the next shower from clouds that were already building again, this time on the north side. We were in for a very quiet evening without electricity.

Rustic, but no topic for Kinkaide: his cottages don't come without reassuring lights in the windows.  And the next storm is brewing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Psychedelic Night Trip

Caterpillars from Florida Canyon, Santa Rita Mts.
Last Saturday we set up our black lights at the parking lot of the trail head next to the research station in Florida Canyon. We got some interesting beetles, moths and antlions, but mostly our sheets were inundated with small brown dynastini  of the genus Oxygrilius - and there were so many that one could hardly find anything else. So we left the black lights and wandered up the trail into the canyon. It was very dark because the moon had set behind the mountains quite early. I had never seen the narrow trail so overgrown with tall grasses and prickly leguminous bushes. So we had to walk behind one another and go slowly because in places it's rocky, though not very steep.

Olios giganteus
Then, in the beam of our flashlights, magical creatures appeared, their colors more vibrant than ever against the dark background. There were big spiders waiting for prey and katydids climbing on long spindly legs.

Apiomerus longispinis and A. flavivestris

Several species of Bee Assassins  seemed to be resting, while night active flightless cactus beetles like the longhorn Moneilema gigas and the round little weevils, Gerstaeckeria sp., were coming out to feed under the protection of the darkness.

Moneilema gigas and Gerstaeckeria sp.
By far the most striking shapes and colors are those of the caterpillars of our big moths and butterflies. Nobody was camouflaged and hidden away. Flashing their colors, they announced or pretended to be poisonous or foul tasting.

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor

Royal Moth Citheronia splendens sinaloensis

Syssphinx montana
Syssphinx hubbardi

Automeris cecrops pamina, Hodges #7748
Bizarre protrusions and appendixes made them look much more formidable and less vulnerable than simple caterpillars.

Estigmene acrea Salt Marsh Moth - Hodges#8131
The moths of the Salt Marsh Moth come from platinum blond to brunette in all hair colors imaginable. Even  siblings from the same clutch on the same food plant seem to show the whole spectrum.

Pygoctenucha terminalis  Hodges#8244. Moth photo by C.W. Melton
Hairs and bristles would spoil a predators appetite and even potentially  give overly curious humans skin rashes to remember (I do - I poked at the nest of  procession spinners in Greece many years ago).

Eacles oslari, Oslar's Eacles -Hodges#770
Oslaris moth have a wingspan that covers the lenth of my hand.

The white-lined Sphinx is one of many species of sphingids that appear regularly at our black lights.

Hyles lineata White-lined Sphinx - Hodges#7894
Some Moths are cryptic and camouflaged as adults, while the caterpillars sport bright colors and patterns.
Purslane Moth Euscirrhopterus gloveri. Moth photo Arlene Ripley

Lirimiris truncata  Hodges#8027. moth photo by Randy Hardy

 If you think about it, all this fantastic, and probably costly beauty must be geared exclusively towards interspecies predation  avoidance, because there is really no (known) reason for caterpillars to signal to or even recognize members of their own kind visually.  One could speculate of course that an egg-laying female might avoid an already heavily populated area to minimize competition for her own brood. I'm not aware of any research data supporting this hypothesis.