Friday, January 24, 2020

Horsetail

Critter trails through scouring rush on Bull Creek

This time of year when nature lacks color there is an evergreen that doesn't get much press.  It thrives permanently on several banks along Bull Creek but is easy to overlook.  It doesn't flower, has no seeds or leaves, and stands less than three feet tall.  It is an ancient species and definitely a "horse of a different color."   

Equisetum (horsetail) is as primitive as it looks, a genus of living fossils, the only surviving members of its class named Equisetopsida, members of the fern family.  Their heyday was the Paleozoic Era (360-250 million years ago) when they were the dominant plants.  There were many diverse species filling the under story of the forests, some growing 90 feet tall. Their remains have accumulated in the earth for millions of years, producing our coal beds.
 
Jointed stems of Equisetum - John Hilty at Illinoiswildflowers.info
Our species is Equisetum hyemale, a.k.a. scouring rush, so named because of the silica concentrations in its stem.  Native Americans used it for polishing and settlers scoured pans with it.  Modern day craftsmen still use it for fine polishing and clarinetists use it to polish their reeds.  Like almost any living plant, some have touted Equisetum as a medicinal or a wild food although the descriptions of preparation could also probably be applied to serving sandpaper for supper.  ASPCA sources describe its toxicity in horses.  Fortunately, it is a survivor and is likely to outlast these few uses.  It grows aggressively along the water and is considered an invasive species in South Africa and Australia.

 Multiple lateral cones - John Hilty
Spore-bearing cone - John Hilty
Equisetum reproduces primarily by rhizomes which are more numerous than their stems.  They can work their way down 6 feet into the soil and are therefore resistant to pulling.  They also reproduce sexually like ferns by producing spores from a cone at the tip or sometimes several lateral cones.  Once they release their spores in late spring or early summer the cones drop off, much like vascular plants shed their flowers. 

 Black teeth (leaves) - Illinoiswildflowers
It has another virtue appreciated by children.  You can pull them apart and slip them back together like joints on a fly rod.  Each stem is hollow for two-thirds of its diameter with joints every few inches.  The joints have fine longitudinal ridges and with magnification you can see 15 to 40 tiny black teeth on the upper rim that may break off with age.  These are actually leaves!  The stems contain the chlorophyll that produces it energy.

I find the best website for detailed information on Missouri plants is Illinoiswildflowers.  It also is rich in faunal associations and has great photographs, many of which are available to non-profit organizations like ours through their photo use policy.  A big thanks to webmaster John Hilty and his team.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Native Bees

Osmia aglaia- a metalic carpenter bee
Looking for color on a dreary January day?  I would suggest a digital stroll through the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.  There is no charge and you won't even have to leave your screen.  I was introduced to this by Dr. Chris Barnhart who sent me a poster with 25 facts about native bees.

The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, gets all the press with its role in pollinating agricultural crops and of course the commercial production of honey.  Say "bees" and we immediately think of colony collapse disorder.  Bee keeping is also a major hobby.  After spreading across Europe and Africa 2-3 million years ago with the Pleistocene warming, they arrived in North America with the European settlers in the early 1600's.

The spread of A. Mellifera has been wonderful but it has caused us to overlook and undervalue all the 4,000 native bee species!  How does that compare to other species in North America?
  • 4x more than bird species
  • 6x more than butterflies
  • 10x more than mammals
Perdita portalis  - USGS Bee Inventory
There are currently 634 species in the genus PerditaSome Perdita sp. found in the southwest measure 0.1 inch, smaller than Washington's nose on a quarter.   Many are brightly colored with yellow and white and iridescent metallic shades.  Most collect pollen from only a few specific plants.  All Perdita cannot sting.

Eastern carpenter bee - Xylocopa micans



At the other end of the spectrum there are giant carpenter bees, Xylocopa, which are over an inch long. The Eastern carpenter bee pictured here (X. micans) is a good neighbor, sticking mostly to the wood found in nature including hollow plant stems.  You can provide them shelter with a variety of native bee houses which will also attract potter bees that seal up the cracks and hollows of their individual nests with mud mortar.

The common Eastern carpenter bee, X. virginica is an exception in the carpenter and potter bee families.  It has developed too much familiarity with civilization and sometimes bores into wood of all kinds such as trees, porches, fences, decks, and (Boo!) cedar siding of our houses.  Painting or staining wood siding and repairing cracks discourages them.

Here are some of the facts that you can see in the 25 Slides in this USGA Presentation.
  • Native bees don't make honey.....Boooo!
  • Many cannot sting you.....Yeah!
  • Carpenter bees have the largest insect eggs.
  • Vast majority nest in the ground.
  • Bees are vegetarian wasps!
  • 20% of species don't gather pollen - the cuckoo bees sneak their eggs into other bees' nests and let them raise their young!
  • Only 1% of our bees are non-native.
  • Males do not help in raising their young.  (My wife says, "So what is new about that?)
  • Over 35% collect pollen in only one plant species.
  • Most nest only a few meters from their flowers.
  • Many native bees pollinate our fruits and vegetables as well as all the other plants ignored by A. mellifera.
None of this is to demean the role of our beloved A. Mellifera, European honeybee.  We just need to recognize the role that all insects have in our world and the need to maintain native habitat to preserve these species.  All native lives matter.

To dive further into native bees I would suggest Bees in Your Backyard by Wilson and Carril.  
Want to "grow" some native bees in your yard?  Try 100 Plants to Feed the Bees.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Ant and the Lacewing





As I was editing a series of photographs of acrobat ants (Crematogaster sp.) patrolling a stem of Verbesina virginica covered with aphids, I saw a small insect land on my Macbook screen and stay there.  I took several photographs of the screen and to identify it as a green lacewing.

Then as I enlarged the photograph the irony struck!  The lacewing was watching me edit pictures of an ant carrying off a decorated lacewing larva!  I could only imagine its horror in seeing the onscreen carnage of its kin.


Verbesina virginica or white crownbeard is a plant that covers the edges of our fields, filling in the untended areas between the rows of riparian walnut plantings.  Its other common name is frostweed, named for the delicate ice ribbons or "frost flowers" split out from the base of the stem with first winter freezing weather.  This will recur with each freezing night unless a prolonged cold spell freezes the roots.  This topic has led to multiple blogs on the subject, and here comes another one!



Back to the acrobat ants.  They patrol the 3-5 foot tall stems, protecting the aphids that cover the flower heads and upper stem of some of the plants.  Aphids suck out the plant sap and put out a sugary secretion called honeydew and many ant species will literally farm their ants like cattle, protecting them from harm by patrolling up and down the plant.  They get their sugar high from "milking" them in return for the protection.

Green lacewing larva sucking on aphids
Green lacewing larva also love aphids, but more for the "hamburger" than the milk.  Although they will also feed on caterpillars and some beetles, they are called "aphid lions" for good reason.   Grasping the tiny aphids in the tips of their large, curved, hollow mandibles, they suck out the body juices.  Once they become adults they will have chewing mouth parts.  The adults feed mostly on nectar, pollen, and honeydew but with some species the adults will feed on insects. 

Aphids are not only juicy and soft bodied but they usually occur in large numbers.  A lucky lacewing larva who encounters them will start sucking their juices like scattered liquid M and Ms.  This is where the acrobat ants come in.  These are not your gentle vegan ants described above.  The Crematogaster sp.  are predominately arboreal, climbing all over plants and trees, earning the name acrobat.  They are also called cocktail ants for the way they raise their abdomens when alarmed.




According to Wikipedia  "Acrobat ants acquire food largely through predation of other insects, like wasps.[5] They use venom to stun their prey and a complex trail-laying process to lead comrades to food sources. Like many social insects, they reproduce in nuptial flights and the queen stores sperm as she starts a new nest."  Our specimen above had a tight grip on a larva with helpless mandibles flailing against the ant's thorax.

As a reformed scientist I try to not anthropomorphize or put into human terms the feelings of insects that we think are living at a much less cognizant level.  I suspect the green lacewing up on top was just looking for a place to rest on my laptop screen, but I can't help thinking, "What would it think if it could see the screen?" 

Friday, December 27, 2019

Red Velvet Mites




Surrounded by snow and ice, I was warmed by looking back at these pictures from May.  I had been hiking through the riparian plantings and took some pictures of bedstraw or cleavers (Galium aparine).  Even if you don't know the name you have probably picked up some of it tromping through the fields or woods.  Unlike many annoying seeds, these are easily removed.


This weedy plant probably sets the record for the most common names of any organism, including cleavers, clivers, bedstraw, goosegrass, catchweed, stickyweed, sticky bob, stickybud, robin-run-the-hedge, sticky willy, sticky willow, stickyjack, stickeljack, grip grass and velcro plant.  It is used by some as a medicinal poltice, infusion or tea.  The tiny sticky hairs have been adapted to straining milk and create stable shaped mattress ticking.  The fruits can be dried and roasted as a substitute for coffee.

This cleaver above also served as a pedestal for a red velvet mite ( RVM}.  Mites are arachnids as are spiders, harvestmen, scorpions and the ever popular ticks.  Like ticks they have six legs in the first instar, then graduate to eight legs from then to adulthood.  RVMs are members of the Trombididiidae family of mites which gives us several thousand species to choose from.  The larvae of a few species are our familiar blood-sucking chiggers.

Most RVM are not chiggers and it is hard to find good reputable photographs of real chigger mites. There are several species with the blood-sucking habit, the most common being Trombicula alfreddugesi.  Their larva sticks its  proboscis into our skin and injects digestive juice which hardens into a tube called a stylosome, the source of the itching inflammation as described here by Missouri University.

The Bug Lady gives an interesting description of their love life as the male deposits his sperm on a leaf and leaves a silk trail to lead a female to his gift.


Adult RVMs are our friends, consuming insect eggs and small insects on our plants.  With so many different species to choose from, it is unlikely that our friend here is a chigger parent, but we will never know. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Fungus Beetle


Anyone who has hiked a few of our Ozark forests has likely seen these bracket fungi growing like shelves on dead or living trees.  They are called Trametes aesuli now, but the books still call them Trametes elegansThey are tough, leathery and hard to break off the tree.  These are hardened members of the polypore group of fungi.  We collect them for WOLF School students to paint on.

This is a great example of nature's recycling.  Trametes fungus species grow on trees which have some dead tissue, a process called sap rotFungi send enzymes out of their fine hyphal threads to break down the wood and digest the cellulose, a hard trick for anything that has legs.  Even termites depend on microorganisms in their gut to grind the cellulose into something they can turn into energy.  The hard fruiting bodies of these polypores have nutrition that few legged creatures can use.  This is where fungus beetles enter the picture.  These species are obligate fungivores (fungus-eaters), meaning that their specialized digestive systems can only digest fungi.  A prime example are the Neomida bicornis below.
Neomida bicornis found in bracket fungi - REK
I was recently surprised to discover that T. elegans is the main course in the diet of Neomida bicornis.  I stored several hard dried fungi in a sealed plastic bag for future artists and when I opened it six months later they were riddled with holes.  In the bottom of the bag there was lots of powder as well as over 100 little black dots.  On closer inspection they were fungus beetles that had eaten their fill before dying of dehydration and old age.

 

The WOLF School students made another discovery while examining the beetles under the microscope, a beetle larva that had been hidden in the frass.  It has been dried for months and I can only find these photographs of the larva in their living state, so I can only assume that it is also N. bicornis.

Neomida bicornis - REK
Neomida  are strictly fungivorous (fungi-eating) beetles of the Tenebrionidae family.  They bore into the hard conks of Polyporales hosts.  Zookeys states that there are approximately 50 species of Neomida beetles world wide.  For anything that is science you can find experts immersed in the chase. Here are some of their identifying features:
"Members of Neomida are diagnosed by the following features (taken from Triplehorn 1965): antennal club loose and with seven antennomeres; eyes emarginate anteriorly close to antennal insertions, forming a lower portion at least twice as long as the upper portion; head of males usually bearing horns or tubercles on frons or clypeus, or both; prosternal process convex; elytral punctation seriate; basal tarsomere of hind tarsi short." Zookeys
  Katja Schulz
The Neomida bicornis are cute by any 5th grade WOLF School definitionBicornis means (two-horns), referring to the male's head decoration.  Only they know what purpose they serve.  In the deep south they sport an orange pronotum, a trait that disappears as they are found further north.  The beetles are a metallic blue-green in life but our specimens are contracted by dehydration with their pigment broken down with age.  Left in nature they too would be recycled by bacteria and fungus, just like we all are, completing the circle of life.
===========
Even tiny 3mm beetles can carry smaller mites.  See this photo by Tom Murray!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Fungus on Poop






I We don't usually feature a little blob of what a WOLF student would describe as poop, but this picture was sent to me by Mark Bower because of the tiny white filaments in the middle.  The tiny yellow dots are the mushroom-like fruiting bodies or sporangiophores of a pin mold named Phycomyces blakesleeanus, PB for our story.




Mark has taken me on macrophotographic journeys through his lens regularly, but this one is especially spectacular.  The sporangiophores appear perfectly round closeup.  The thin stalks are a different species of pin mold and the clear globules are droplets of dew.

I did not expect to find much additional information on a little pin mold but PB turns out to have a sizable scientific audience.  A 2018  New York Times article describes how it borrowed from ancient bacteria to defy gravity.  "It can respond to wind and touch, grow toward light and detect and navigate around objects placed above it. It senses gravity too — with crystals that move around inside single, but giant, elongated, spore-containing cells that resemble Truffula Trees."  Scientists say the fungus developed its well-known sensing abilities following an ancient genetic transfer between its ancestor and bacteria it encountered.

P blakesleeanus zygosporangia
The PB sporangiophores emit an "avoidance gas" that lets them expand and yet avoid solid objects without touching them.  The science behind this is described in this Wikipedia article and is too dense for me, but it does have this cool photograph of the PB's sexual structures called zygosporangia which resemble insects.


Starfish stinkhorn from Tasmania - Aseroe rubra

By now you may have detected a faint unintended theme of odors beginning with the poop above.  On a less scatological note, Mark has just put together a book of his photographs of the Fungi of Tasmania.  Even if you don't dig mushrooms I think you will be amazed at the photographs, such as this starfish stinkhorn.  There I go again!

You can download the PDF of his book here.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Grapefern



Hiking along the Mail Trace Road, Barb spotted a solitary green fern poking out of the drab floor of dried leaves.  It had what appeared to be green leaves spread out around the base and a 12" bright green stalk with light green bumps lining the underside of stems like little grapes.

When she touched the stalk there was a tiny cloud that drifted away.  The cloud of spores was released with each touch, as shown in this video.  We went back home to identify it.  What in the past would have been a nearly impossible task of thumbing through books became a one minute exercise with the photo above sent in to Inaturalist.

Wikipedia
This is a cutleaf grapefern, Sceptridium dissectum, a common fern, although easy to overlook when hiking as it is frequently found in overgrown disturbed areas.  It is a perennial but is easier to find this time of year because of its strange growing season. To grow it depends on a mycorrhizal fungus association in the soil.  Ferns are different from our common flowering plants and don't get as much respect, the Rodney Dangerfields of the plant world.  Stick with me as we muddle through this difference.

This grapefern produces a single frond (large, divided leaf) which spreads out at ground level, usually with lacy edges.  This often turns from green to a bronze color during the winter.  In fall, mature plants grow a single fertile section, which stands on a long stalk above the sterile part.  They are named for the round, clustered sporangium (spore cases) extending from the top of the stalk which have some resemblance to a bunch of grapes.  When we touched the stalk, the cloud you saw was the spores drifting away to the ground.

From here the fern life cycle gets very technical and hard to describe in simple terms.  Rather than confuse you further, I would suggest reading the best description I have found, here from UPenn.edu.

Resurrection fern during dry period
 Add water, no stirring required.
Another common fern species that can be overlooked is this resurrection fern, Pleopeltis polypodioides.   Gala Solari shared these photographs before and after a rain.  This is an epiphyte or air plant, meaning that it gets its nutrition and water from the air and the bark surface of a tree.  It is able to survive long dry periods and lose up to 97% of its water.  It does this by curling up its fronds, turning gray-brown and appearing dead.  Add rain and viola! it greens up.  It can survive drought for many years this way.  You can watch one revive in this time-lapse video.


From now on I will give a lot more respect to the ferns I encounter, even if I am still struggling to understand their strange life cycle.

You can read about the Christmas Fern in this month's Missouri Conservationist 
at this link.