Saturday, October 27, 2018

Florida Canyon in October 2018

October 2018  brought rain to the desert. While destructive hurricanes swept into Baja, Mexico,  we enjoyed the load of precipitation  in their aftermath ,  even if it came in the form of heavy hail in some places like Sonoita and our art show in Patagonia got quite slippery and muddy at times.

While the higher elevations of the sky islands and the Mogollon Rim received a sprinkling of snow and the cool nights are bringing fall colors to aspen and maples, our own low desert is again draped in fresh greens and on the foot hills of the sky islands  all kinds of Asteraceae like Bidens erupted into millions of yellow flowers.   

Desert Broom is also blooming. Roads on the west side of the Santa Rita Mountains are lined with nice mature bushes of this often maligned species. It grows in disturbed habitats and insects and entomologists love it as much as gardeners seem to loath it. 

I am still primarily looking for beetles, but I did not find anything new, just the usual mix of Scarabs, Chrysomelids, Cerambycids, Ladybugs and Blister Beetles. I noticed a surprising absence of Cantharids. Maybe those flew early this year, I did see huge numbers in September

Sphaenothecus bilineatus, Disonycha glabrata (Pigweed Flea Beetle), Epicauta sp., Euphoria leucographa, Hippodamia convergens (Convergent Lady Beetle), Brephidium exile (Western Pygmy-Blue
A Great Purple Hairstreak demonstrated how to draw attention away from one's vulnerable head to the expendable pseudo-antennae and false head at the back of one's wings. If I had been a bird I might have fallen for the trick
Atlides halesus (Great Purple Hairstreak

Most Desert Broom bushes were dominated by wasps. Nests of Polistes comanchus, P. flavus and P. major castaneocolor must have been close by. Young queens and males were feeding on nectar (and pollen ?) . They are probably not raising larvae at this time of the year so it was all for their own consumption (not that the males ever contribute to feeding the brood). Many of the big young females were wrestling for dominance. Will their ranking still matter after they have survived the winter to start new colonies from scratch in spring?

Pepsis grossa and Tachypompilus unicolor
 Spider wasps Pepsis and Tachypompilus were also feeding on the broom flowers. Like several of the other visitors, they had eagerly consumed oozing tree sap from the branches of the broom in August and September. Is it possible that the broom actually profits from its earlier losses of sugar water by having pollinators at its beck and call when it finally blooms?  But only a few species are present both in late summer and in late October.

The potter wasp Euodynerus guerrero gave a pretty good imitation of a paper wasp. Euodynerus probably has a sting of her own, but mimicking a powerful social wasps has its advantages.

The Pidgeon Horntail Tremex columba is a wood-boring wasp belonging to the Symphyta. Those wasps have no thin waist and no sting - their ovipositor is still just that. (The one in the picture is a male anyway)  I found a rather big female and several smaller males.

They all were sitting quietly as if asleep. I have never seen these guys more active than this. Are they night active? Or can they be so slow because the trees they place their eggs in don't run away? One male flew very sluggishly after I disturbed him.

Oplomus dichrous
 Nothing sluggish about this male insect: The Predatory Stinkbug   Oplomus dichrous was hunting for insects often larger than himself.

Ptilophorus wrightii
 The male Wedge-shaped Beetle (Ripiphorid) Ptilophorus wrightii was scanning the ether for scents of a female. Just check out the immense enlargement of the surface of his antennae: "the better to smell her with"- those surface areas are loaded with sensory cells.

I concluded the nice day with checking up on my print and card inventory at gift shop of the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon and enjoyed coffee and ice cream watching Magnificent Hummingbirds.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Sky Island Safari, August/September 2018, Portal

During our Sky Island Safari, Joyce, Alice, Aaron and I spent 2 days and nights at Sunny Flats CG in Cave Creek Canyon. When we arrived, there was still no water in the creek, very unusual for the end of August. But clouds soon rolled in, the nights got chilly and rain was pounding the tents. In my car it was quite cozy though. 

I was happy with the performance of my new little Olympus Tough4 under very dim light conditions. The colors are actually especially saturated when the light is so diffuse.

At home, at my larger PC screen I found the draw-back: the camera compensates for low light mainly by increasing the ISO numbers, which leads to granulated low resolution images. 

The little flash is not very potent, but will improve the situation if I remember to control the ISO to no more than 200. 

We found some nice bugs along South Fork Creek and with the help of a local birder even saw 2 juvenile Trogons.  

We visited Southfork Creek in the afternoon and again in the morning, hoping for Rock Rattlers that Alice had seen here previously. 

But we could find neither the snakes, nor their usually very common prey, the Mountain Spiny Lizards. We speculated about the recent fires, floods and land slides but I heard later from other herpers that Sceloporus jervey  is rare this year on all sky islands. 

Leptinotarsa decemlineata (Colorado Potato Beetle) on Silver-leaf Nightshade and Tetraopes discoideus on milkweed
Wet prospective Monarchs
Eggs of a Green Lacewing
The Chrysis cuckoo wasp  was not giving up its sleeping position while it was cold and wet
At theSouthwest Research station a recent heavy downpour had pretty much flattened the milkweed patch and we found fewer bugs than expected.
Female Dynastes grantii (Herculaes Beetle)

 Our black lights at night brought little and mine was constantly robbed by a skunk, but Joyce got a big female Dynastes grantii. I've put that beetle up in a terrarium to hopefully lay some eggs. So far she is eating lots of apples. 

While Joyce and Aaron were looking for oak galls in the canyon they were pounded by thunder storm after thunder storm. 

Alice and I tried to stay in ahead of the front following Foothills Road. We were treated to dramatic sights of mountains and canyon being swallowed up by heavy clouds.  

Saxinis sonorensis and trichoderes peninsularis
Buprestids Acmaeodera disjuncta. and flavopicta
Gyascutus caelatus still flirting despite the upcoming storm

Cerambycids Crossidius suturalis, Plionoma suturalis and Stenaspis solitaria
 Many insects were tightly holding on to their perches in expectation of the storm. At least they held still for photos. Since there were many black Stenaspis solitaria in the mesquite trees, we searched for the rarer green/red Stenaspis verticalis. 
red form of Stenaspis solitaria

Alice found a big male with lots of red on head and pronotum. First I thought it was S. verticalis, but the antennae were not annulated.  A teneral S. solitaria? I kept it and it never changed color. Now I've learned that this reddish form is not totally uncommon further east in New Mexico and Texas. Foothills Rd in Portal is always good for eastern species and forms. 

Acrolophitus maculipennis (Texas Point-head Grasshopper)
 A slant-face grasshopper that had us guessing. It was now identified as Acrolophitus maculipennis (Texas Point-head Grasshopper). While it seems to occur as far west as Tucson at least, it's more common towards NM and TX. It's found in open desert scrub, Ocotillo, Mesquite, wherever Wooly Crinklemat is common. Soil is generally of limestone origin.

 A quiet evening followed the storm, but the washes were now running and more rain came at night.

 In the morning the clouds were still hanging low, so we skipped our planned tour up to Rustler Park and headed for Wilcox Playa instead.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Raising Dynastes successfully

Dynastes grantii development

 I have been asked repeatedly for the recipe of the wood mulch that I use for beetle larvae that feed on rotting wood. I got this recipe from my friend Bill Kaufman and it really works. Of course you need to prepare it at least 4 weeks ahead of time, so it's late now for Strategus larvae, but still time if you have and egg laying Dynastes female: those eggs take a break till next spring before they'll hatch.

For adults of scarab beetles, I usually use sieved peat moss for egg laying because it is easy to obtain in large amount and normally have success with it. Since peat moss usually carries mites that explode in their numbers very rapidly and cover adults and eggs, I microwave peat moss in a disposable tupperware (plastic bags can also be used) with a lid loosely placed on top; I usually put half-gallon container filled with peat moss in a microwave for about three minutes. After removing the tupperware from the microwave, I place the lid tightly and let the peat moss cool down for several hours. The moisture level is important for egg laying. You want the moisture level to be where peat moss forms a lump when pressed in your hand but easily breaks when poked by a finger. If a clump does not form, moisture level is too low. If a clump does not break easily, there is too much water. This rule of thumb usually applies to other substrate unless you are using very coarse substrate.

For lucanid egg laying, I do not use peat moss. I bury pieces of rotten wood in compost found in tree holes or homemade substrate. Compost is placed first in a container, and it is compressed hard for the first inch on the bottom. Rotten wood pieces are placed after being soak in water for a few hours. More compost is added to fill air space around rotten wood.

For scarab larvae, I usually mix multiple types of substrate. Compost found in deciduous tree holes is great. I also mix some well-rotten wood after braking it. Finally I add substrate I make. It is probably best to use only the homemade substrate if I can make enough of it. (since most dynastines prefer more decayed substrate than most lucanids do, it takes longer to make ideal substrate for scarabs than lucanids). The below are the steps I follow to make the substrate. Substrate that is commercially available in Japan and that generally produces larger beetles than the ones found in wild is made in a similar way. I sometimes use the homemade substrate only for lucanid larvae instead of mixing multiple types of substrate.

Barbeque wood pellet (I get oak from Ace Hardware)
Wheat flour
Plastic tub (10 to 20 gallon)
Large spoon or another item to mix substrate
Measuring cup
Bucket or plastic tub

Other items that may be helpful for you

1. Wash barbeque wood pellet by putting it in hot water in a bucket or another container. Rinse a few times. This process will remove most resin used to make the pellet. It is easier if you wash small amount of pellet at a time instead of trying to wash the whole bag of pellet.

2. Dry the washed wood pellet by placing in/on a tub, lid, newspaper, or tarp. If you make it shallow, it drys faster. The pellet becomes sawdust when it is dry. Make sure that it is completely dry before proceeding to the next step.

3. Add 7 to 8% (10% at most) by volume of wheat flour mixed with a couple of spoons of dry yeast into sawdust. It is very important that the container, sawdust, spoon, and your hands are dry during this step; otherwise, flour will make unwanted clumps, which will cause mold or lead to failure in the substrate making. Mix well so that sawdust and flour are mixed evenly.

4. add warm water and stir. Use enough water to get to a consistency that you can form balls of substrate that don't fall apart, but not more. It's moist, not wet.

5. Stir every day for a week, later once a week. Keep above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. White hyphens should run through all of it and the over all color will darken. But if you find black mold, throw it out, it's spoiled.

Important: The first time I tried this, all the males eclosed earlier than the females. This is normal for many insects. But in the confines of the terrarium, they got to the youg females before the females' exoskeleton had time to harden, and the females were killed. To prevent this sad situation, make sure you separate the male pupae (horned) from the females as soon as you can tell them apart. 

Good luck!


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Evil Plants? Media Hype about the Buffalo Bur

Solanum rostratum, Buffalo Bur Nightshade Photo By leighannemcc
 A member of our SW U.S. Arthropods Face Book group wanted me to post a warning against the severe dangers posed by a plant that people might encounter while looking for insects.  The concerned and caring reader had found an older post on I think in the past I have used a very good plant guide to Arizona Wildflowers by the same author. 
But this time I was not impressed: After an anecdotal encounter involving the plant's burs and the author's dog, the native plant was maligned as evil, vicious and dangerous and called highly invasive. The plant: Solanum rostratum, Buffalo Bur Nightshade.
The attribute 'invasive' may stem from the usual reaction of landowners to an opportunistic plant that spreads in disturbed habitats. Worse - this one is said to form tumble weeds that roll about during droughts and spread the plant that way. Of course opportunistic colonizers among plants make no difference between 'disturbed' by natural causes or cleared by ranchers to raise cattle. In Marana, Arizona,  it grows happily on soggy, heavily grazed meadows along the Santa Cruz River. In Sonora Mexico I also found it in grazed meadows close to rivers. The plant is native to the United States and northern and central Mexico. It may be unwanted by the property owners, but ecologically, endemic plants are not considered invasive.

Solanum rostratun with Leptinotarsa haldemani and Coleomegilla maculata (Spotted Lady Beetle)
As for the danger the plants toxins pose and the warning I was supposed to put out on the FB group that I administer with my friend Robyn Waayers, I believe that the situation in the dog anecdote was unfortunate and the conclusions way overdrawn. 

As a Nightshade, Solanum rostratum contains a certain amount of solanine, glycoalkaloid poison, which can cause convulsions and death if taken in large doses. So do many of our wild Solanaceae.  Therefore, do never eat parts of nightshade plants if you are not sure if they are edible.

But the warning went further: the plant would be highly dangerous if simply touched. There are plants that do defend themselves efficiently against touch. I grew to know burning nettles as a little kid in Europe. 

Toxicodendron radicans, Poison Ivy and Mala Mujer, Cnidoscolus angustidens two truely untouchable AZ residents
 Poison ivy and oak are carefully avoided by most Americans. In Arizona, we warn people on excursions not to touch Mala Mujer in the family Euphorbiaceae. All those plants have irritating chemicals contained in glassy hairs that break on contact or glands that exude an oily substance that coats the leaves. 
In contrast, the buffalo bur has strong thorns protecting plant and seed pods, the burs. I have often touched the plant with no adverse effect when I photographed beetles or bumble bees on it (did I mention that this evil weed feeds lots of pollinators?). Of course the thorns prevented me from rubbing my fingers all over it and my usually careful approach kept me from being pierced by those obvious thorns.  So I think that the normal careful behavior of a naturalist will prevent the Buffalo Bur from becoming as evil a menace as described in the internet article. Media hype is all around us, though: A derivative article, mostly copied from the firefly forest post, was actually titled: Buffalo bur! This Arizona plant can kill you and your pets.

Leptinotarsa decemlineata (robably) here on silverleaf nightshade
In fact, there is another much more consequential side to the Buffalo Bur. Solanum rostratum is the ancestral host plant of the Colorado Potato Beetle, Leptinotarsa decemlineata. In eastern Nebraska in the eighteen-fifties, the beetle was accidentally matched up with a great new host, another Solanum originally from South America brought in by humans:  Solanum tuberosum.  (There aren't any convenient potato plantings where I could photograph the beetles here in AZ, so I have only founds them in Arizona and Mexico on wild growing Silver-leaf Nightshade)

The beetle thrived on that new, more succulent host, grown in convenient monocultures, and spread quickly eastward. New host plant and beetle were also carried from the Americas to Europe, where the host plant again went into agricultural mass production. So not only had the beetle combined with a super-optimal host that was further bred, fertilized, and pampered into defenselessness, but the natural enemies of the beetle had not been imported with it. Paradise for the Potato Beetle. The beetles multiplied and became THE most hated pest of potatoes in Europe (not counting fungal blight here).

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

What's in a name?

Often there is some interesting history in scientific names - and my friend Michael Ohl probably has a lot to say about that in his  book 'The Art of Naming', but I do not have the book yet, so sometimes I speculate by myself. For example the family of Metallic Wood boring Beetles is shortly called Jewel Beetles in Great Britain and Australia, in Germany we call them Prachtkeafer. All those names, from metallic to jewel to Pracht refer to their shiny beauty based on structural elements in their exoskeleton that refract the light that they reflect like so many prisms. 

But does their scientific name is Buprestidae have a similar meaning?  Buprestis is the name giving genus, and the ending 'idae' simply signifies that we are talking about the entire family of beetles that the genus Buprestis is a part of. 

So what about the name Buprestis? It goes all the way back to Carolus Linneus (Carl von Linné) who named the species in 1758, so right when he published his Systema Naturae, therein formalizing the binomial nomenclature, and thus becoming the father of modern taxonomy.

 But what did the name mean to him? It turns out that the Romans already called a colorful, maybe metallic beetle buprestis. Of course, they had stolen the word from the ancient Greek βούπρηστις

While trying to research the meaning of βούπρηστις, I nearly fell into a trap: I figured out that Πρήθω, f. -σω, p. πέπρηκα means to set on fire, burn, inflame. So I smartly concluded that the ancient Greeks had already observed that certain buprestid beetles were drawn to fire (females of some species lay their eggs into still smoldering logs, sometimes burning off their own feet), and called them something like 'Fire Bugs'.  So tempting an explanation, but wrong, sorry.

I then found out that βούς means Ox. This cured me of jumping to conclusions, even tempting ones. Burn-cow?
if βούς, πρήθω literally means burn-cow,  or rather cow burn, it seems to have referred to a something toxic that cattle might eat, only to die from colic and with burns and inflammations on their lips and tongues. To me, that sounds suspiciously like blister beetle poisoning. I also know that in Europe some blister beetles are quite metallic and colorful, just think of the shiny-green Spanish Fly (the one of Cantharine fame) that was once considered a Soldier Beetle, but clearly is a blister beetle. So I think the origin of the word buprestis lies in the toxic capacity of a beetle very different from our jewel beetle. Oh, well. I still think they are among the prettiest beetles.

All Buprestids, Jewel Beetles, Metallic Wood-boring Beetles shown here are Arizona Buprestids. Containing the enormously species rich genus Agrilus, Buprestids are one of the very largest families of beetles.