Saturday, October 30, 2021

My ode to impermanency

As a child, I got to plant a tree. But when I sold our house, the new owners cut it down. I recorded my songs, but the tapes eventually unspooled themselves and got irreversibly tangled. I read and studied and was proud of my language proficiency until I migrated and had to start over. I trained horses and dogs,but they got old and died. I photographed artfully and spent much time and moneyon film, but the medium of slides became obsolete. I fought to establish a wetland nature preserve, and against a freeway planned to cross through it. When I returned after 30 years, it the groundwater level had fallen, and the marsh was dying. I invested in friendships and love, but I or the friends moved away, and the connections were reduced to facebook messages. I collected books, bird nests, and art but abandoned them on another continent to people who did not care. I painted and sold my work, but the people who bought my paintings got old and their heirs had different tastes. I am working on a book when the medium of print might be reaching the end of its 400 year reign. The tree was a birch that we brought back from a trip to the Dutch border in a pot. I watched how the huge leaves of the young tree turned over the years into much smaller leaves of the mature. It grew over our heads, gave us shade, a place to climb up in, where birds would roost, and leaf-rolling weevils perform their art. It sparked feuds with neighbors over falling catkins, seeds and leaves. It lost a limb one spring and produced so much ‘Birkenwasser’ that we all washed gloss and health into our hair. It gave character to our house. In the evenings we often sang under the tree, learning songs in a foreign language because we felt that our own folk-songs were infused with a patriotism that left a bad taste in our mouths. There we easily threw out the good with the bad. But enthusiastically we sang into microphones of primitive recorders, and mothers got years of enjoyment from it. Eventually, I made the foreign language of those songs my own. I had been very comfortable in my old language and deeply loved its writers and poets. But discovering new lands was exciting and invigorating. Even though for a while a new language makes any migrant feel like she is being reduced to the level of a 10 year old even in her thoughts, one eventually gets comfortable enough to believe that no loss happened, but new levels of complexity have been reached. Cognitive bias that makes us feel better. When I noticed that I used my new language to train my dogs, I knew that I had become quite comfortable. Of course, those dogs were not the beloved one that accompanied my childhood. That I trained and took to trials that he was not bred for and still got some awards. But I found a little bit of him in each of the others – and I loved many over the years. Only photos remain of most of them – a dog’s life is so short that I have begun to think of them as the continuum of ‘our dogs’. Always an avid photographer, I got my first camera at the age of five. My father had his own darkroom, and my parents’ best friend was an artist who worked in every medium imaginable, including art photography. Absorbing by osmosis rather than being taught, I early on tried to use the camera to capture and preserve memories, to create art, and to document observations of the natural world. My first greater investment of any kind was a state-of-the-art macro lens for my Canon A1. As digital technology began to replace film and slides, I made the switch later than many. I love now the instant feedback, certainly the endless availability of digital pixels, and that I can edit and change my photos without spending nights in a smelly darkroom. I miss the mystery of the image slowly appearing in the developing bath. I still think about graininess versus light-sensitivity and speed versus depth of field. Sadly, I got disenchanted with the quality and usability of my earlier slides to the point that I just left thousands of them behind when I sold our old house. I was under immense stress at the time and still regret that decision. But those photos that I cannot physically see anymore are ingrained on my brain and will forever be of superior quality and artfulness. I returned to the ‘old country’ after my mother died and I had to resolve her estate. It was a very sad time. I found solace returning to the woods of my childhood and the swampy nature preserve that I had helped to establish in the late seventies by doing the entomology part of our biodiversity assessment. Where in the first half of the last century mining activity had caused severe sinking of the ground and a reversal of the flow of the groundwater, trees had drowned, and agricultural fields had been lost to wetlands. These themselves were then considered worthy of protection because the country retained so very few of its original bogs and swamps. When I returned over 30 years later, the area was still protected by nature preserve signs, but a changing climate was drying out the soil and the forest was taking back the area. The change was fascinating to observe: While many of the insect species I had listed earlier were gone, I found many pioneer species and a very high level of diversity, as often the case in disturbed or changing environments. I would have loved to observe longer or at least to come back to it later. (The situation may have been reversed again after the floods of 2021 in NRW) A friend from my youth had joined me for this short step back in time. Disconnected from the past and any possible future, this encounter was blissfully sweet. Never a person to easily bond, I have left behind most of my closest friends at several points in my life. But I tend to keep most of them close to my heart, and whenever we meet again, I connect as if no time had passed. Most bad memories, though, have been erased. That cognitive bias again! Even my happy marriage is based on reconnecting to my great love after more than 15 years and another marriage in between. There was heartbreak in the past. But time has made that unimportant. Whenever I was lonely or sad, I found an outlet in creativity. I can trace back my most active times in nature photography, writing and painting to times of broken first love, a failing marriage, homesickness and other shake-ups. Painting especially always helps me to transcendent to a state beyond momentary pain and stress. So the reward I get from painting is manyfold. First, the process of painting is reward in itself. I really fight and work from the ‘ugly’ phase that any of my paintings goes through to the satisfaction of the finished piece. Watercolor, by its somewhat ‘accidental’ character, lives of surprising, unplanned effects. The art lies in letting them happen and enjoying them. Then, I get to show the piece. At shows, on-line, it’s usually a good experience, and I do not question what could just be flattery. The real test comes when it’s up for sale. I hate sounding so commercial, but it is a great compliment when someone is willing to pay my price and give the painting or print a prominent place in his home. People who buy from me are also always exceedingly graceful: they thank me – as if no money had been involved in the exchange. So the satisfaction is great on both sides, even if I am realistic enough to know that any change in the living arrangements of my clients can make my painting homeless again. My art is just not high end enough to pose a collectible value in every case (yet ­čśŐ). At the moment I am not producing much art. That could mean that I am just too blissfully contented. But in fact, I am pouring my creativity into the preparations for a book, my long dreamed-of Arizona Beetles. It has become somewhat of a never-ending story because we find more and more species to include, especially since my co-author, Art Evans, has now bought into my concept and obsession to make it as complete and inclusive as we possibly can. But the more time goes by, the more often I worry about several things: that I will not be able to work the market well enough to distribute it because I am doing fewer shows and fairs, that many of our followers may lose interest in field work and Arizona collection trips, that the insect fauna is so changed and diminished by climate change that our book becomes more of a historical account, and that books, as a medium, lose out to all those phone apps that promise identifications that are probably not as accurate, but fast and easy. On the other hand, the project has given me years of adventures in the field often in the company of great friends, much learning and discovery, hours of satisfying creative work at the computer. I would not want to miss a minute of it. Well, so much for any attempt at permanency. You say: but what will be left of you after you are gone? My answer is that at least I will not take up space from those who come after. Until then, I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts, whatever it is.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Orb weavers at work

Round and round she goes. Yesterday, I watched one Neoscona oaxacensis (Western Spotted Orbweaver) do spokes for her web, another one (in another web) was already putting in the wider spiral from the center towards the outside. Today I was too late to video any of that, but everybody was busy putting in the narrowly-parallel rounds of sticky thread - this time from the outside inward. With great accuracy, despite of the wind. And tomorrow morning she'll take it all down to do it again between 4 and 5 in the afternoon. Have a successful night Ariadne!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

15 min under a blooming Mesquite Tree

This spring, the mesquites in our area hardly sprouted any leaves, and definitely now flowering catkins. Only after the monsoon rains, the canope filled in, and now they are finally in bloom. This afternoon, I first noticed butterflies dancing around the top branches where most of the flowering is happening. American Snouts, of course, and Grey Hairstreaks that were ovipositing, I think.
Copestylum Flies in the marginatum group showed off their strange double antennae, a few tiny bees showed up. Mozena Coreid bugs found some very young mesquite beans to suck juices from
Up high I noticed big beetles flying - their narrow elytra spead out, the abdomen yellowish in the afternoon light. When they landed, they ran along the branches, sleek and dark and fast: Buprestids in the genus Hippomelas, species H. sphenicus, which is more coppery than its congenerics and powdered with orange exudant. It uses Mesquite as its host while H. planicauda prefers Mimosa.

Friday, October 1, 2021

October Wildlife

October began with me running over a rattler just before sunrise. When I heard the rattle under me I just kept going until it was clearly behind me. When I looked back, he was sitting in cobra pose in the middle of the narrow path. Pretty pissed off, after 4 paws (Chaco's) and 2 white running shoes had gone right over him, and now 2 dogs were barking at him. He was still rattling indignantly under a creosote bush when we returned 10 min later. After that, the first of October was quiet and peaceful except for clouds of pesky mosquitoes.
But this evening around 10 pm, when I checked our patio lights for moths, Chaco started growling. One of the largest Arizona Hairy Scorpions I've seen was just about standing on her head in front of his nose, threatening him with the full length of her upright stinger. He kept a polite distance. I wasn't quite as good, trying to get my finger into a photo for scale. Randy watched from the kitchen window and asked if I wanted to pet the scorp. She surprised me with her very sudden, very speedy retreat to the safety of my Jalape├▒o pepper pots (video on flickr).
In the beam of my flashlight I realized how the AZ Hairy got its name: on stinger, claws and body, hairs glistened in the side-light.
Looking up, I discovered a very big, and completely unblemished Black Witch on the beam above me. This one was certainly hatched here in Arizona. Travelers from Mexico look much more disheveled.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Slaughter of Autumn

Very often, my fall images seem to be crime scene photos. I have not suddenly turned sadistic but I'm not apologetic either. It's how the cycle of arthropod life concludes. Nothing goes to waste. Most herbivorous insects do not live through the winter after they have reached adulthood. so they are now fair game to predators. Many predators are now in their prime, ready to continue the food chain that started with the abundance of plant growth after the summer rains.
A Calosoma sp. Carabid and a number of Pogonomyrmex sp. ants scavenge on a roadkilled Brachystola magna (Plains Lubber Grasshopper)
Misumenoides formosipes (Whitebanded Crab Spider feeding on Poecilanthrax sp (Bee Fly)
A female Peucetia viridans (Green Lynx) got herself a Sulphur. a welcome boost of proteine as she is ready to lay her big clutch of eggs
Zelus renardi, the small but fierce Leaf-hopper Assassin Bug. Probably the most common one around our backyard. It often tackles insects at least its own size. I have not seen any preference for leaf-hoppers.
Apiomerus flaviventris (Yellow-bellied Bee Assassin) lives closer to the sky islands. This assassin lives up to its common name and often grabs bees, but here it's shown with Pogonomyrmex sp., a Harvester ant. One of her sisters stung poor Kira in her right hind paw and she suffered greatly. Usually it's me.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Artfull Encounter

Tonight I went to a vernissage at the ASDM. A very nice exhibit of ‘Animal Impressions’. But eventually, I drifted away from the buildings to the trails. So lovely to have the park all to myself at sunset. So many butterflies still dancing in the fading light. But then I felt watched. No longer alone. A long-legged, long-tailed creature on the trail, quietly observing me. Joined then by two smaller shapes, much more impatient, curious. The small ones about the size of a cat. Hopping towards me, retreating, sitting secretively behind a cactus, sneaking forward again. All under the weary guard of the larger one. All of them – so graceful, so elegant! Yeah, cute too. My painting does not do them justice I’m afraid

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Population Explosion of the Ground Beetle Calosoma sp.

For weeks, the blacklight in my yard in the Creosote/Saguaro flats of Picture Rocks, Pima Co, Arizona has been overrun by huge numbers big, black beetles. They densely cover over 30 square feet of wall and desert floor around my light. The longer my lighting session goes on, the more arrive.
This is a real population explosion of Calosoma probably Calosoma peregrinator. We have a number of very similar Calosoma species here, so I will just use the genus name from here on.
Fast on its strong legs and equipped with big prognath mandibles, Calosoma is a potent predator that grabs whatever other insect they can catch. Moths, desert roaches, ant lions, other beetles, carcasses – Calosoma is not selective at all. I am actually giving up black lighting until the curve of this population explosion is on the down-slope. That may take a while, because the individual beetles can live for several years.
Of course other people in Arizona also find the beetles around their porch lights and swimming pool illumination. Lighted storefronts attract them at night, store owners spray against ‘this pest’ and dead beetles litter the walkways in the morning. So even though the beetles are mostly night-active or crepuscular (dawn and dusk-active) and during the day only single individuals are visible running through the cinch-weed, people are aware of them and are getting annoyed. Thanks to social media, speculations as to what they are and what to do about them abound.
This is what they are not: Many Arizonans want to call them Stink Bugs. But Stink Bug is a folksy name for the Desert Stink-beetle or Pinacate Beetle. Similar in size and some behavior to Calosoma, Stink-beetles are darkling beetles in the genus Eleodes. They got their popular name for a good reason: Eleodes has 2 scent glands that open to the very tip of the beetle’s abdomen. When threatened, Eleodes releases the smelly, staining fluid (containing a potent mix of benzoquinones and caprylic acid) – either directing the chemical spray directly at its attacker, or just pouring it all over itself by standing on its head, ejecting the chemical and letting gravity do the rest, rendering the beetle distasteful to many attackers. This ability gave the Stink-beetle its name, and its headstand is a very well-recognized warning that many predators understand. It also gave the Stink-beetle the confidence to stay out in the open at dusk where people saw it and noticed it. So It got not only one, but several common names that are well-known all over the southwest. The Desert Stink-beetle is a peaceful, slow moving feeder on starchy seeds and fungal matter. I often see many coming together where Creosote bushes drop their fuzzy fruit. Eleodes have fused elytra that give them a hard shell and protection from evaporation. But they have lost the ability to fly.
There is another flightless beetle walking the desert, also black and of similar size, and even shape: the Cactus Longhorn Moneleima. When these longhorns move between cacti across a stretch of bare sand, you may sometimes see them stop and point their hind end upwards. They do this very much in the manner of Eleodes, though in fact, they lack stink glands. They are mimics of the Desert Stink-beetle. The existence of mimics that not only look like Eleodes, but even imitate its behavior, demonstrates how effective the protection is that Eleodes gains from its chemical warfare. Cactus Longhorns and Desert Stink-beetles are often confused even by human observers.
But back to Calosoma, the predatory Carabid whose population explosion bothers so many people. Even though it also has a distinctive smell (Hydroquinone) it is actually quite different from the Stink-beetle, being a fast runner and able to fly very well. And while the Stink-beetle larvae could be compared to big meal worms (they are in the same family) that feed on starchy stuff, Calosoma larvae are already potent predators, that go after all kinds of soft-bodied arthropods and also, opportunistically, carcasses.
I think it is this high protein diet that makes the larvae of Calosoma to grow up quickly (a few weeks) and prepares the species to take advantage of sudden abundance of prey species as we are seeing after this monsoon season. When hundreds of White-lined Sphinx caterpillars were appearing in the desert, feeding on herbs that were sprouting everywhere, Calosoma armies were ready to attack them, together with tarantulas, tortoises, lizards, kestrels, coyotes – you name it. Of all of these, only Calosoma has a generation sequence short enough to result in visible, sudden population increases. I am sure that other insect predators and parasites might have reached similar population peaks, but little braconid wasps and even tachinid flies would be much less obvious to humans.
Contributing is the fact that Calosoma is a night active, flying insect that uses light sources (the moon in nature) for orientation. Artificial lights, especially those with a high UV component, are irresistible to those big black beetles, so they can quickly congregate by the hundreds.
So at your porch lights running to invade your doors is Calosoma, the Caterpillar-hunter. It’s that predatory Carabid that everybody sees and gets upset about. Not the slow Desert Stink-beetle Eleodes, a Darkling Beetle, and also not the Cactus Longhorn Moneleima, though single individuals of both genera can be seen stalking (not running!) over the desert sand at dusk and dawn. Ironically, the role of Calosoma as a predator that very quickly reacts to sudden abundances of ‘destructive’ caterpillars has been well known by many forestry experts for a long time. Calosoma inquisitor, a European Species, was actually introduced to the US for biocontrol of certain periodic caterpillars. How strange that avid gardeners here in Arizona are now the ones that spray and kill an endemic Calosoma because they are ‘grossed out’ by the usually mis-identified beetles.
There is a very close relative to our black Calosoma species, Calosoms scrutator. This one doesn't like the hot dry desert as much as its dark relatives. You can find this one in the medium elevation of the sky islands of the Southwest.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

September Morning

Sugar-water bat pee pattern on the garage door. Shrike screaming from the old Ironwood, Snake tracks crossing the path, straight ones from rattlers, undulating ones from constrictors. Weaving lizard lines with little footprints. Much straighter and more deeply engraved iguana grooves. Then, following my trail instead of crossing it, a sidewinder's diagonal hatching, first of this year. Observations while jogging after my dogs. Sweat in my eyes, mosquitoes buzzing.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Wolfberry bugs

Yesterday I cruised through Saguaro National Park West on the open part of Golden Gate loop. We got record monsoon rains in July and August, so every leafy plant, including Ocotillos has greened up. The Saguaros must have doubled their circumference. In the park, flowers are relatively rare at this time.
Thousands of nectaring butterflies are clinging to a few yellow Asteraceae. Some bushes, noticeably Sweet Acacias and Wolfberry (Lycium), are already heavy with fruit.
After snacking on sweet berries for a while, I remembered one of my missions: to check Lycium sp.bushes for Echenopa permutate, nymphs or adults. One of my clients is working on their audible communication and I have a standing order for life specimens.
Lycium pallidum from Gardner Canyon
Lycium brevipes from Mexico, a common plant in Nurseries in AZ
Lycium andersonii, probably our most common desert species with nearly succulent small leaves and small whiteish flowers While not finding any treehoppers this year - the Lycium plants were obviously drought-deciduous and this year put out leaves only after the first monsoon rains - I did learn something about the available Lycium species in Arizona. And since google brings up the popular Goji Berries with any Wolfberry search, but then proclaims that they (all?) stem from China, let me clarify here: Goji berry is a Wolfberry (genus Lycium) from China, but we have quite a number of endemic Lycium species in the US and especially in Arizona. With edible, probably healthy berries.
The first bushes I checked looked extremely healthy. Only a few berries had been squished by a hungry Green Fig Beetle (Cotinus mutabilis) I have learned not to expect phloem-juice-sucking treehoppers on bushes like that. With my close-range binoculars I finally spotted (from the car!) a lot of movement in a single Lycium bush that looked more than a little bedraggled.
Most of the movement that alerted me came from red-headed ants that were surprisingly difficult to photograph. They appeared to be all one species but different size casts (?) in addition to these constantly running ants, dozens of other species of insects kept appearing and hiding again while I watched just a small area of gnarled twiggs.
The only beetle sp. present, represented by a striking number of individuals, was a ladybug in the genus Hyperaspis perhaps sp. conspirans. This may provide a hint of what’s going on: Hyperaspis mainly feed on Aphids and scale insects. The lumps that made the twigs so gnarly were probably scale insects (or caused by them). While the ladybugs may have been actively hunting for those, all the other insects were probably there to lick the sweet honey dew that the sedentary bugs secrete.
These 2 wasps, a Crabronid and a Braconid are just examples of a variety of hymenopterans most of whom evaded the camera.
Flies of several species were also heavily represented in the melee.
Empress Leilia and American Snout stuck their probosces in, while none of the ubiquitous sulfurs seemed attracted to honey dew Sadly, I saw no trace of the Membracids (treehoppers) Enchenopa permutata that I was looking for, so I am showing male, the ‘horned’ female and a nymph from another trip which took me to Box Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains.
In the wetter spring of 2015, we found Enchenopa permutata in May, and now it’s September, so this may be the wrong season. But I had been hoping those small bugs might be multigenerational. I will keep looking.