Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Not a Wasp

Eastern Amberwing Dragonfly - female - REK
When I saw this small insect sitting on a sage in our backyard, I assumed it was a wasp with its coloration and twitching wings and abdomen seeming to explore the blossoms.  I took a quick series of pictures before it could fly away.  Only enlarging the pictures later did I discover what a treasure I had captured.

This is an Eastern Amberwing Dragonfly, Perithemis tenera, the second smallest in the US.  Measuring less than an inch long, its size and colorful wings are said to look like nothing else in the region.  The abdomen is narrow at the base (connection to the thorax) and then widens out. Its appearance and movements mimic a wasp, felt to be a defensive advantage.

Male Amberwing - Stan Gilliam CC
The males have orange to golden wings with small black spots.  The females' wings are clear to amber with larger black splotches or bands.  The females' abdomen is thicker, not body shaming as the males seem to go for this look.

Their mating and reproduction has been extensively studied in amazing detail considering how small and quick these dragonflies are.  It is described here at Odonatacentral.
The male "patrols and defends these territories, as potential egg laying sites, where they regularly perch on emergent sticks or twigs. These small territories, less than 5 square m, are only accepted by the male if he is not disturbed and there is no competition from other males. Females appear and are courted by the male. He will fly out to her and lead her back to his prospective oviposition site, hovering with his abdomen turned up. Upon acceptance by the female, signaled by a slower wing beat, the pair perch on a twig and mate, taking 20-30 sec."
Only a few dragonfly species actively mimic wasps.  Unlike most dragonflies, Eastern Amberwings are "perchers," frequently found sitting on flowers while ignoring any pollen or nectar, posing just like wasps.  They will sometimes adjust their body and wings to absorb the least amount of the sun's heat on a sunny day. They prey upon mosquitoes, flies, ants and wasps that crawl over our flowers.  Good hunting, little lady.

The UWM Bug of the Week has more details and is worth a read.  (Now he tells me!)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Lesson in Fluff

Mystery Fluff
I had been noticing tiny white particles drifting in the air like the white seed pods from our willow trees, but occasionally they would seem to change direction.  I caught a few in insect boxes and identified them under the microscope as woolly aphids of the sub-family Eriosomatinae.

Wooly aphid - Mark Bower
Before removing some fluff
Mark Bower had introduced me to these aphids with his beautiful photographs a few years ago but I wanted a closeup experience.  After a brief chilling in the refrigerator I persuaded them to pose for pictures under the microscope.  As I moved them into different poses with a toothpick I could remove bits of the waxy fluff as seen in this video.

These are plant sucking "true bugs" (Hemiptera).  Many species have only one specific host plant or alternate generations between two different species.  The fluffy larvae feed on the plants and the adults fly to new locations with their eggs to start a new family.  Their slow wandering flight has earned them names such as "angel flies" and "fluff bugs."   Once back out in the sun my specimens took off, slightly lighter but presumably still egg-laden.

Mystery Fluff
Now back to the "Mystery Fluff."  Saturday on an early morning hike through the deep valley at Pickle Springs CA, I found the leaf above.  At first I thought it was a spider egg case or some type of gall but then it moved slightly.  After getting this video I decided to leave it alone to munch away.

Underside view - George Hoffman
I tried to identify it but couldn't come up with a perfect fit so I contacted Bi-State Bugs with a tentative ID of a woolly aphid.  Ilona Lozer quickly came to the rescue with a better choice, a green lacewing debris-carrying larva.  It isn't always what you know but who you know!

This was a little embarrassing as the last blog mentioned lacewing larvae decorating their back, but the green lacewing examples I had found were brown.  Once again color isn't everything.  Now Ilona has introduced me to a great resource, Bugguide's 14 pages of Debris-Carrying Larvae photographs.  Good hunting!

This debris-carrying is nothing new. Evidence of it millions of years ago is preserved in amber as discussed in National Geographic.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tortoise Beetles

On the MPF Bioblitz, Christine presented me with the challenge above.  They appeared to be a beetle larvae, but which ones and what is with the black flags?  After thumbing through the usual sources, I sent it to Bi-State Bugs.  Helen Wilbers pointed me in the right direction with Tortoise Beetle larvae, famed for collecting their fecal material on their backs as a shield.  She suggested Physonota unipunctata as a likely suspect. 

   P. helianthi - Bugguide -Tom Murray CC
Bugguide showed pictures of P. unipunctata which were a good match but stressed the similarity to the Sunflower Tortoise Beetle (STB), Physonota helianthi, whose larval host plants are members of the aster family, Asteraceae.  James Trager meanwhile suggested that the leaf in the picture looked like Berlandiera texana (an Asteraceae) that we had been seeing on the prairie.  The leaf is a perfect fit so I am settling on a STB until others vote me down.

Sunflower Tortoise Beetle - Tom Murray
Mature beetle - Kerry Yurewicz
The STB and its larvae feed on the underside of sunflower (Helianthus) leaves.  The beetle goes through some interesting color changes once it emerges.  It starts a dingy white, then becomes black and white for three weeks.  Finally it reaches its final adult stage as a bright metallic green.  The progression continues after death to a pale yellow to brownish gray.

Tortoise Beetle larvae have an interesting defense as described in Bugguide. 
"The larvae carry their cast skins and fecal material attached to spines arising from the posterior end of their body, a structure called an "anal fork." The anal fork is movable, and is used to hold the debris over the back of the body, forming a "shield" which deters predation."
View of head with black anal forks naked - REK
Fecal shield on an "anal fork"
This type of shield defense is not unique to tortoise beetles' larvae.  Lacewing larvae decorate the hairs on their backs with trash including remnants of their aphid prey.  One species of West African assassin bug carries its ant victims on its back to ward off spiders.

More on fecal shields on this blog.

Friday, June 10, 2016


Carolina Buckthorn rust - Lisa Berger
Rusticate - go to, live in, or spend time in the country.

When we first acquired our tree farm at Bull Mills, our neighbor Harry would call out "Rusticating again?" as we packed up for the weekend.  The implication was heading out for a life of leisure although over time it morphed into more work as most things do. 

"Rusticating again" come to mind in an email from Lisa Berger with the picture above of a Carolina buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana) leaf showing a plant rust.  Spring and early summer is the time when leaves show the signs of rusts, plant diseases caused by fungi of the order Pucciniales.  Over 180 genera  and 7,000 species of these fungal parasites exist, damaging leaves but rarely killing their victims.  Our concerns are more cosmetic while farmers suffer far more in crop losses.
Life cycle - Forests CC
Rusts fungi have a complicated life cycle, producing up to five different spore types depending on the species and circumstances.  Most of the literature focuses on agricultural species because of their economic importance.  A typical life cycle is shown above for stem rust caused by  Puccinia graminis whose host shrub is barberry Berberis vulgaris (barberry).

Lisa's rust agent is likely Puccinia coronata, first found on barley in 1922.  It also attacks oat and rye grass and causes oat and barley crown rust.  Its alternate host plant is common buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, the same genus as Lisa's Carolina buckthorn, Rhamnus caroliniana. 

Buckeye rust - underside of leaf
Top side

I first got interested in rusts with the yellow bumps on buckeye leaves that I saw all along the Ozark Mail Trace road last spring.  These yellow spots are the aecial stage of the rust Puccinia andropogonis

This rust uses grass as an alternate host, probably the big four species of warm season grasses we had planted nearby.  The common alternative host plant is big bluestem (Androposen gerardii).  The effect on our buckeyes is cosmetic only, in our case adding a bit of color and a lot more interest to the variety of life along Bull Creek.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Two-toned Copperhead

Old skin off the back half - REK
When we took the cover off the firewood stack there was a copperhead laying between the logs at eye level.  Ordinarily I would capture it and transport it into the woods but this one could easily slither into the stack, leaving us with the memory every time we got a log so I had to dispatch it with a shot to the head.

Rat snake shed, eye covered - REK
When I started to salvage the skin I learned why it had remained so still.  As I started to skin it I found that it had just started to shed.  When that occurs, the old skin covering the eyes acts almost like a cataract, effectively blinding it until the skin is pulled off.  We commonly find snake sheds in our house but haven't caught one in the act before.

Old above, peeled new skin below
Snakes obviously don't shed all their skin, they just lose the outer layer, leaving soft underlying cells which allow it to grow into a new skin, not unlike a crawdad.  This is called ecdysis, a term that is generally associated with insects (think of locust "shells" beloved by many young kids).  Sometimes during dry periods snakes can have problems getting the outer layer off, a possibility in this case as it was under a waterproof cover during a dry spell.

When I picked up the snake several hours later some of the skin came off on my fingers.  I peeled some of the outer skin off the back half, leaving the bright shiny new skin below. The beauty of it made me further regret the unavoidable sacrifice of its life.

I would not advocate the killing of any snake unless it is a potential danger to humans or their animals.  Sometimes it is impossible to safely remove a snake.  It is illegal to sell a non-game animal skin.

MDC Editor's note from Conservationist Magazine, August, 2000
"We have a controversy among several of us about whether it is legal or illegal to kill snakes in Missouri?"
Garvis Myers, Festus

"The Wildlife Code of Missouri is permissive, in that it details what wildlife related activities are allowed. Any wildlife-related activities not included in the Wildlife Code are, therefore, not permitted. This includes the killing of snakes. However, the Code does permit Missourians to protect their property and family from immediate harm from wildlife, which means that under certain circumstances venomous snakes may be killed to protect people in the immediate area. Most snakes are not venomous, and the few venomous snakes you may encounter can usually be avoided."

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Beware the Tick

Female dog tick questing - University of Maine Extension
By Jennifer Ailor

As Master Naturalists, we have had more than a few encounters with ticks in the woods, prairies and glades we frequent. For that matter, you can pick up a tick in your backyard.

But ticks can make you very sick, and without proper treatment of tick-borne diseases, people sometimes die. Not to sound the alarm bells, but you do need to take ticks seriously. As well I know. Two weeks after I removed a couple of seed ticks from my abdomen, I came down with flu-like symptoms that in the span of a week morphed into severe dehydration and a trip to the ER with fever and a tripping heart. Ten days in the hospital and rehab will give you a new respect for a tick.

My particular disease turned out to be ehrlichiosis, which according to Dr. William Sistrunk, infectious disease physician at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, is the most common tick-borne disease in Missouri. It's carried by the lone star tick, also common in the west/south central region of the country that the Ozarks borders.

Ehrlichiosis is easily treated by doxycycline, but unfortunately one encounter doesn't protect you against future ones.

Tick-borne Diseases in Missouri
There are several tick-borne diseases you can pick up in Missouri, and a couple of new tick viruses (Heartland is one) have emerged in recent years and are being studied at Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For lots of information on different tick-borne diseases found in Missouri, go to this health.mo.gov link. Here are some highlights:

Ehrlichiosis - Symptoms appear about 14 days after exposure. Among the symptoms are fever, headache, myalgia, malaise, anemia, nausea, vomiting and rash. Treatment is with doxycycline.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever - RMSF is common, hard to diagnose and fatal if not treated with doxycycline or other antibiotics. It begins with flu-like symptoms, with a spotted rash appearing on the fifth or sixth day of infection. It is carried in Missouri by the American dog tick.

Tularemia - This disease is more frequently picked up by handling infected animals, especially rabbits. Hunters or others who skin, butcher and cook wild game are at particular risk. But ticks can carry it, too. Interestingly, tularemia is classified as a potential bioterriorism weapon! Skin lesions and swollen glands are among the early symptoms that appear usually within five days of exposure. It is treated with streptomycin and gentamicin.

Q Fever - Like tularemia, you're more likely to pick up Q fever from animals than a tick. Generally, cattle, sheep and goats are the carriers, which a handler can pick up when animals are giving birth. It's a serious disease, though, with acute and chronic varieties, and can cause miscarriages and early-term deliveries in pregnant women.

Lyme-like Disease - There is no Lyme disease in Missouri, but it is the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S. blacklegged ticks carry it. A bull's eye skin lesion at the site of the bite appears about 80% of the time. While our state is Lyme-free, people can acquire Lyme-like illnesses, which if not treated with antibiotics can spread to joints, heart and nervous system.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services advises:
· Avoid tick habitats during peak times of year (April through September).
· Use tick repellents with 20% to 50% DEET; the American Academy of
 Pediatrics says repellents containing up to 30% DEET can be used on     
children over two months of age.
· Wear clothes that will help shield you from ticks; permethrin, sprayed on clothes or manufactured in clothes, will kill ticks.
· Check frequently for ticks and remove promptly with tape if crawling, tweezers if biting.

Big day - removed with "tick tape"
There are various natural tick repellents, such as rose of geranium essential oil, but talk with your doctor, do some research at the CDC site online and check with local health product stores to see what they recommend.  Inspect your skin and clothes inside and out for ticks when you come in.  Remove crawling ticks with tape.

To identify ticks in different regions of the country, go to tickencounter.org.
Tick prevention suggestions at Tickencounter.org 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Elm Leaf Finger Galls

Early Elm Finger Gall

Jeff Birchler, the new Watershed Center Coordinator has been finding these on field trips, causing some excitement among the students.  He sent this picture for identification.  The small teeth below the larger teeth suggests this an elm leaf.  Many galls have a simple descriptive name and this is as simple as it gets, the Elm Leaf Finger Gall.

Full bloom with a baby starting
These are caused by Eriophyid mites, tiny creatures less than a half millimeter long.  There are over 3,600 species described with many more out there. Being mites they are in the same Arachnid class of 8-legged critters as ticks, chiggers, and spiders.  They are the exception to the rule, having only two pair of legs on an elongated carrot-shaped body .  They are usually specialists, concentrating on a specific species of plant.

The mites overwinter as adults, nestled in bark cracks and under bud scales.  When they emerge in the spring they lay eggs and their larvae look like little adults.  They are so small that their method of spreading is by blowing in the wind.

Shriveled after picking
These mites crawl out onto leaves, sucking at the sap and causing the release of chemicals that cause the scaring and producing the galls.  The different species can make a wide variety of galls in color and shape.  Some of these mite species have become major agricultural pests while a few have been used to attack weeds or invasive plant species.  Other species can cause scarring, bronzing and other damage as the plants react to their nibbling.

Hackberry Witches' Broom
Eriophyid mites also cause witches' broom, a dramatic proliferation of branches on the hackberry tree.  In this case the mite damages a tree bud, infecting it with a powder fungus and the tree reacts by producing a cluster of deformed branches.  It doesn't cause any significant tree damage although it can worry a homeowner.