Thursday, May 26, 2016

Snowy Disco

Snowy Disco fungus - Mark Bower
There is a whole world below our feet that usually escapes our notice. Miles of mycelium can grow in a patch of soil or a rotting log, only occasionally showing itself in a flowering (fruiting) body to release its spores. Even then, the results may be microscopic.

Ball point pen pointer - Mark Bower
Mark Bower sent me these photographs of the tiny Snowy Disco, Lachnum virgineumThey are cup shaped initially and then flatten out, measuring 2mm across with a distinct stem.  They are saprophytic, growing on wood and rotting debris.  They occur year round.
Only 2mm across, less than 1/10".   Notice the hairy underside.- Mark Bower
Snowy Disco is a British common name.  In the US it goes by the catchy poetic title of "Stalked Hairy Fairy Cup”  Not much else is known about a lot of things going on around us.  That is the wonder of all of nature.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Toxic Mimic

Turning over leaves while looking for butterfly eggs I was startled to see the Orange Patched Smoky Moth - Pyromorpha dimidiata clinging in the shade.  It hung on patiently as I removed the leaf to get better light and remained there when I put the leaf back on the branch.

Lycomorpha pholus - Cyndy Sims Parr
P. dimidata is a common day-flying moth which ranges from Missouri to New York.  Its peak time is May to June and it tends to be on oaks.  Adults eat nectar while the larvae feed on leaf litter, especially oak.

To my eye it is almost a twin to the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth (Lycomorpha pholus) and I can't find a side-by-side comparison.  I based my ID on having found these repeatedly in our oak/hickory forest while L. pholus is a prairie species that flies in late summer.

Calopteron terminale - Wikimedia

Its bright coloration is aposematic, warning off predators of a potential toxicity.  It looks similar to the Lycid beetles of genus Calopteron and some sources call this Batesian mimicry, a harmless species getting protection by mimicking a toxic species.  Lycid beetles contain pyrazines, an odoriferous chemical which serves to protect them from predators.  In this case however, this is Muellerian mimicry as our smoky friend is toxic on its own by manufacturing hydrogen cyanide!

A final note, the look-alike moth Lycomorpha pholus does not produce toxins so you might feel free to sample it this fall, if you are so inclined and are certain of the identification.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Biting White Bug

While examining some insect damaged oak leaves I felt an annoying little sting on the back of my hand.  I had to look closely to see a tiny white shapeless dot.  I took several photographs and when it became too much to tolerate, I scraped the perp into an insect box.

Several of the leaves had the same insect as well as fuzzy egg cases and scattered exuvia (skins of molted larvae).  I couldn't tell if all the white fuzz under the leaves was related to my tormentor or other species that were destined to become its prey.

Deraeocoris nymph - REK

Ventral view with stylet - REK

Under the microscope I could make out the piercing stylet that had stabbed me, typical of a larval Hemiptera or "true bug".  I sent the photographs to and got back an identification of a Deraeocoris nymph.

Deraecoris nymph- Ilona L. CC  
There are 64 species of Deraeocoris in the US.  For the most part they are predatory, attacking insects that eat plants such as aphids, psyllids, scales, mites, and lace bugs.  I could not find any more specific information on the genera as most references are for European species.  Some species such as Deraeocoris brevis piceatus and Deraeocoris nebulosus are useful for insect control.

There are no available guides to the species of these nymphs so I guess I will just have to chew on this problem for a while.....or visa versa.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ichneumon Wasp Week

 Giant Ichneumon, Megarhyssa atrata - Andy Schiller
It was a big week for ichneumon wasps.  First Andy Schiller sent me this creature with the gorgeous tail and long antennae.  Many people will run away or swat away, thinking it has the world's largest stinger, but the only danger they present is to insect larvae.  Don't let those frail tails fool you.  They are ovipositors, used to drill deep into wood to lay their eggs on wood-boring insects.

This was identified as a Giant Ichneumon, Megarhyssa atrata.   The long ovipositor labels it as a female.  The ovipositors of some species will drill as much as two inches into wood, searching out insect larvae.  The wear and tear on the ovipositors must be tremendous and many have up to 10% of their ovipositor weight in metal in their cuticle to help them drill.

Limonethe maurator - Swearingen
Just as I completed this story above, Becky Swearingen sent me this beauty above, another ichneumon wasp.  There are various characteristics besides the female's ovipositor that distinguish Ichneumonidae from their stinging wasp cousins, most of which escape me.  One clue is their antennae which are generally at least over half their body length.  Many but not all species of the females have the long ovipositors.

L. maurator - Tim Lethbridge
The first species I guessed was Protichneumon grandis based on its coloration with the distinctive red abdomen.  After I had gone out on a limb on By-State Bugs, James Trager very gently sawed it off with the suggestion that it might be  Limonethe maurator and Becky confirmed it.  This too is an ichneumon wasp but in addition to the white band on the antennae and the red tummy, it has a distinct red hind femur versus the black leg of P. grandis.  

The family name Ichneumonidae has an interesting history.  According to Wikipedia, in medieval literature the "ichneumon" is the enemy of dragons, able to cover itself with mud, close its nostrils with its tail and attack and kill dragons.  It was able to kill the crocodile and the asp in the same manner.  Exactly what that has to do with laying parasitic eggs on beetle larvae or lepidoptera caterpillars escapes me, but it is an interesting story.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Asian Lady Beetle Larvae

Bug on the couch - REK

H. axyridi larva - Wikimedia
Barb was cutting Golden Alexander (Zizia aureus) seed heads off to prevent them from reseeding and the following morning found these colorful creatures crawling around the seed bag.  The one above was on the couch and posed for a low light portrait.  I was sure it was a larval form of a beetle or bug but couldn't come up with a match.  I emailed it to Chris Barnhart who suggested it was probably a Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle larva- Harmonia axyridis and a trip through multiple sources confirmed it.

If that name doesn't ring a bell, think back to the onset of winter when these little stinkers started invading your house or garage, crawling around and taking little annoying nips on your neck.  When you slapped one or picked it off it left a foul odor on your fingers.  I suspect you remember them now.
First instar (emergent larvae) with empty egg cases - Barry Grivett
They only take between 3 to 4 weeks to go from a little egg packet attached under any of a wide variety of leaves, four larval stages and a pupa to an adult lady beetle. They can have multiple generations a year leading to the heavy infestations we see in the fall.  The larvae feed on a variety of aphids, a plentiful food source.  The adults can live more than a year, the perfect trait mix for an invasive species.  If this weren't enough advantages, consider their defenses:
"Like other lady beetles they use isopropyl methoxy pyrazine as a defensive chemical to deter predation, but also have this chemical in their hemolymph at much higher concentrations than many other such species, along with species/genus-specific defensive compounds such as harmonine. These insects will "reflex bleed" when agitated, releasing hemolymph from their legs. The liquid has a foul odor (similar to that of dead leaves) and can cause stains. Some people have allergic reactions, including allergic rhinoconjunctivitis when exposed to these beetles."
Cannibalization? A firm prolonged grip on the head - REK
It must have seemed like a good idea back in 1916 to release them for aphid control.  It wasn't until 1988 when they were found in the wild.  Now they threaten some of our native ladybirds and other aphid eaters, both by competing for resources and in some cases actually attacking them.  They are known to cannibalize their species, especially if they aren't from the same brood.  I suspect that is what is going on in this video of the two in the picture above.

  • Looking for help in identifying a bug?  Bi-State Bugs is a new Facebook page focused on Missouri and Illinois with a lot of heavy hitters following it to answer questions or just admire your latest find. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Mayapple Fruit

The blooms have dropped off most of the Mayapples by now, leaving its fruit to grow.  While these apples can be hard to see below the parasol of the leaves, they are right at eye level for their most important consumer, the box turtle.
Box turtle eating road kill, usually a vegetarian - Brian Edmond
The Three-toed Box Turtle is a common creature seen almost year round in the Ozarks.  Humble and shy, it carries the impressive scientific name, Terrapene carolina triunguis.  While young turtles eat mostly insects and earthworms, adults eat primarily a variety of plants, berries, and mushrooms. They are known to consume poisonous mushrooms without harm and according to Pennsylvania State University humans eating the turtles subsequently have become violently ill.  OK, that may be poetic justice for eating a box turtle, but it reinforces a mantra in the mycological world - because an animal eats a mushroom doesn't mean it is safe for you.

   Feast for a turtle - Mark Bower
Mayapples are a food seemingly designed for box turtles.  They grow in dense mats, identical plants spreading by underground rhizomes.  The fleshy berry-like fruit hangs on a stalk, within reach of the stretching terrapin's neck.  All parts of the plant are poisonous except the fruit.  According to Illinoiswildflowers, "People can eat the ripe berries in limited amounts, even though they may be mildly toxic. The flavor is bland and resembles an overripe melon" 

Mayapples benefit from a partnership with box turtles.  They require transportation of their seeds to spread, something that the box turtle is good at if you aren't in any hurry.
"Mayapple seeds ingested by turtles have about a 38% germination rate, whereas undigested seeds only have an 8.5% success rate. Box turtles, which are the Mayapple’s main seed distributors, are able to reduce the thickness of the seed coat allowing germination to take place more easily." NEAQ
The toxin in Mayapples is podophyllotoxin, an active ingredient in compounds used to treat some types of warts.  In the past we used podophyllin to treat plantar warts on the soles of the feet.  I have never found these warts on box turtles, although they are hard to examine  Only the turtle knows.

Bright colored and looking for something other than food
This is mating season for box turtles whose colors intensify as an indicator of their passion.  They are crossing our roads is search of mates, so drive carefully.  If you feel the need to move one, always place it in the direction it is headed,  otherwise it will just turn around and head back across the road.

Friday, May 13, 2016


On moist areas of our glade after a rain we come across these piles in the trails.  It looks nasty, a cross between rock snot and rotting moss.  It is actually a cyanobacteria called Nostoc.  They grow in chains or filaments covered with a gelatinous sheath.  They have photosynthetic pigments which accounts for the green color.

Since it is invisible until rain causes it to blossom, it had a rich folk lore history.  It was assumed to fall from the sky with the rain, getting it named Star Jelly or Witches' Jelly.
Some species are grown and consumed as food in China, Japan and Peru where it is said to contain protein and Vitamin C.  Other sources deny any nutritional value and point to a toxic amino acid BAMA that can affect nerve cells.  Either way, I would not expect to see this in your grocery store any time soon.