Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What a Bug!

Reaching for dinner - Click to enlarge  Kate Redmond
Linda Bower sent me a video of a water scorpion, an incredible insect that I hadn't ever heard of.  The scorpion comparison is a stretch with its long front legs lacking claws and rear breathing appendage that neither bends nor stings. There are two genera world wide, Nepinae which are more bug-like and Ranatrinae which look more like a walking stick.

A few facts before you watch the video.  Water scorpions (WS) are Hemiptera or true bugs as they consume their prey as liquids.  They grasp their prey, usually aquatic invertebrates, but occasionally a small fish or tadpole, and stab it with a needle like beak.  It has one channel to inject digestive juice and another to suck out the predigested meal.

Note "jack -knife" front legs to grip prey - Kate Redmond
The cool part of the video is how rapidly it can capture its prey.  While we bipeds are particularly fond of our opposable thumbs as the peak of anatomical evolution, the WS has a primitive but impressive grasp by flexing the last segment of its foreleg like a jackknife.  Now watch the video as it has a Predaceous Diving Beetle larva as an appetizer, then catches a Creeping Water Bug that was dumb enough to land on its back.

Now to the interesting tail piece.  Unlike the stinger on its scorpion namesake, this is a harmless breathing device.  They are ambush hunters, hanging upside down on vegetation to grab prey coming by.  To get oxygen they back up to the surface and their snorkle-like tail collects the air supply that they then store between their forewings and the abdomen beneath.  Its respiration is even more complicated as the tail is actually two hair lined filaments that diffuse oxygen into its air bubbles as described in this Northern State University article.

I can imagine a movie like Jaws where scuba divers are pitted against a giant hundred foot water scorpion.  Calling Steven Spielberg!
* More detail in Brown Water Scorpion by Kate Redmond, aka the Bug Lady who provided these photographs.  She writes a great Bug of the Week blog for the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ostracods in a Fountain

Ostracod grazing on filamentous green algae -
You, like me,  probably haven't spent much time thinking about ostracods.  Larry Wegmann introduced me to some he found in the top dish of a little yard fountain.  They are seen browsing around the resident algae in his video.  As the fountain runs on processed city water, the question is how they got there.  They are known to occur in almost any kind of water including small pools of water in bromeliads growing on trees, so Larry's finding is not surprising.  How they got there remains a question.  The eggs are tiny so they could stick to a birds feet are even be blown in the wind.

Empty shell -
Ostracods, a.k.a. seed shrimp, are tiny crustaceans that live in water.  They are an ancient species with 70,000 species identified but "only" 13,000 that have survived extinction.  They are common in fresh water, frequently in temporary pools and ponds.  Their eggs resist dehydration and can wait for months or many years before hatching with their next hydration.

Click to enlarge - Pionocypris vidua, -

Their flattened bodies lie within a bivalve structure similar to a mollusc.  They swim with their legs extended but can contract them and close their "shell" to protect themselves.  They lack a distinct abdomen and circulatory system but have antennae to seek out food (diatoms, bacteria and detritis) and mandibles and maxilla to obtain it.  I will leave the anatomical details to Wikipedia.

Here are what 5th grade WOLF students would call "Fun Facts"* although some might be R-rated.
  • Although fish eat ostracods, some may survive the passage through the gut.  One study showed that 26% of those eaten by a bluegill passed out the rectum alive.  Who counts these things?
  • Many species reproduce parthenogenetically, i.e. without male fertilization, but some species have the largest sperm in the animal kingdom, up to 3.6 times longer that the adult's body.
  • Ostracods are the most abundantly preserved arthropod in the fossil record (500 million years) and boast the oldest known example of a fossilized penis, 425 million years ago.
  • Some species are bioluminescent, a defense mechanism seen in this video.  During WWII, Japanese troops collected and dried specimens, then rehydrated them to provide a dim light for map reading without giving away their location.
Linda Bower has a fantastic video of ostracods feeding on Youtube.  A second video shows Fragile Forktail Damselfly larvae feeding on ostracods starting at 1:47.  Its a tough world out there!

Amazing Facts about Ostracods.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Ants and the Toad

Field of frantic ants -
Click to enlarge - REK
We spent the weekend hiking Stilwell Prairie at the Missouri Prairie Foundation Bioblitz.  It was warm but a stout breeze kept us cool, the plants waving, and butterflies blown around at warp speed.  There is no such thing as a bad bioblitz and this one was no exception.  Witness the ant and the toad.

Plunging into thick growth with John Miller (MDC) in search of amphibians and reptiles, we turned over boards planted weeks earlier as cover.  The one board above exposed a large colony of frantic ants, now running in all directions and trying to protect their white larvae.  After recording this video, I put several in a bug box as they nipped away at my hand, in a vain justifiable homicide attempt.

"F. difficilis, meet James Trager"

Back in the headquarters tent, myrmecologist Dr. James Trager identified these as Formica difficilis.  This is one of many prairie species that require our vanishing prairie habitat to survive.  Counting the unique prairie species is one way to measure the fantastic diversity of these ecological gems.  James had photographed F. difficilis recently on the prairie portion of Shaw Nature Reserve and he sent me to Bi-State Bugs to get his comments and photograph of the rarely seen tiny queen.
"Formica difficilis - An ecologically conservative grassland ant species that once was common in Missouri's prairies, now rare and spotty due to nearly total suitable habitat destruction. Note the small, coppery-gold queen; This is a member of the specialized Formica microgyna (Greek for small queen) species group." in Bi-State Bugs
Behold the queen - Trager - Bi-State Bugs
Our ants were below a herp board, actually one of several pieces of metal roofing laid out to encourage amphibians and snakes to take refuge.  These ants had found what seemed like a safe home and they adjusted the temperature for their larvae by moving them to different areas of the nest.  As seen in the video, this is the equivalent of Barb hauling around a 200# baby.  The ants were frantic until we lowered the board again, minus only a few members of the colony.

Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad - MDC
The ants were lucky that it was only a bunch of curious naturalists.  John Miller showed us one of their natural predators, the Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad.  This ant specialist lives mostly under rocks logs and boards like ours.  It has an interesting adaptation which allows it to feast on an ant colony without damage from bites like those on my hands.  The toad has eyelids that close protecting them when it is feasting on a colony.

Consider this microcosm.  An ant species that needs prairies and high quality grasslands.  A toad that lives under structures around moist areas but can survive on drier and even glade-like environments to find ants.  And lumbering humans, lifting up boards to appreciate them or under other circumstances wipe out their habitat to raise corn, fescue, or even shopping malls.  And that is why we support the efforts of the Missouri Prairie Foundation to protect these ecological gems.

More finds from the Bioblitz are in this Flickr album.

Sorry if you missed this year's Missouri Prairie Foundation Bioblitz but there is always next year.  Look for this and other MPF events, including the Annual Dinner on August 5th on their homepage at

Monday, June 12, 2017

Life on an Elm Leaf

I love looking for diversity in a small space and the American elm leaf provided just that.  I first spotted this bright orange fly on the only remaining remnant of this chewed, curled and folded leaf.  It measured roughly 6mm and was patient enough for my camera.

Small insect larva hiding on a leaf
Small insect larva hiding on a shriveled elm leaf.

I was curious about what had caused the leaf damage.  Pealing back a folded edge, I exposed a tiny larva that patiently laid in its groove.  The clouds started to deliver a sprinkle so I broke off the leaf and took it home to photograph.  Putting it under the microscope, the first thing I saw was a tiny beetle.  It must have been as startled as I was as it remained frozen just long enough to get a photograph, then scurried across the dining table before falling into my bug box.  It was more cooperative after a few minutes in the refrigerator.

Chilling out

This 4mm specimen is a colorful ground beetle of the genus Lebia, now identified as Lebia lobulata as the one shown below.

L. lobulata - Mike Quinn

The "ground" beetle name is misleading as they are frequently found on foliage like this elm, six feet above the ground.  They are typically seen in late spring, the first of two generations in the south.  The adults are predators and I may have saved the little larva above from an early end of life, or on the other hand, I may have starved a beetle.

Back on the microscope stage, the larva had managed to crawl under another folded segment of the leaf.  I used a toothpick to lift this up and get a good view.  It didn't seem particularly grateful for my efforts, but did hold still for pictures.  No telling what this one would grow up to be.

Meanwhile, back to the fly, the hunt was warming up.  It appeared to be a true fly of the Diptera family.  The best fit is the family Lauxaniidae which prefers shaded woodlands and forests.  They have bristles above the eyes that I can barely make out under strong magnification.  Note to self - next time take a net.

 Fly - Lauxaniidae - Cheryl Moorehead
This may seem to be a lot of visible life on a single tattered leaf, but it is surprising how much there is out there in a small space if you take time to look into it.  Cynics might say that I have too much time on my hands and I ought to get a job.  I tried that for 35 years and besides, now I have a job, it just doesn't pay in cash.

Another story of insects living together is found in Linda Bower's fascinating video, Creepy Mystery Egg: 16 Days on the Butt of a Baby Water Boatman.  If the title doesn't get you the soundtrack will.  Spoiler alert - the autopsy at the end is messy.  See this Youtube link.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Biting Bug

We were out looking for insects in the woods when this one found me.  I felt it before seeing it, an annoying pain, but as a bug nerd I held still as Chris got out his camera to photograph the attack.  Then it went into a bug box for identification.  It measured a whopping 7mm and after an hour in the refrigerator (love that tolerant wife) it went under the microscope.

It fit some characteristics of Miridae, the family of plant bugs.  I am not a plant although around our house when it comes to helping with the laundry Barb might accuse me of acting like one.  Miridae is the largest family of true bugs with 1,930 species in 223 genera listed in North America.  I sent the photographs off to Bugguide and they came back with an ID of the Ceratocapsus sp. 

The Miridae family of bugs is primarily made up of species that feed  on plants and some are destructive pests. Some species however are predaceous on other insects and may have the ability to deliver a painful bite to humans. Adults are elongate oval, 4-14 mm long, and with two distinct cells on the wing membrane. They are active flyers.

Miridae may pierce human skin when it is either moist with perspiration or dry. A large number of species are known to bite and suck blood. While some of these are predators, Schaefer** reported in 2003 that some of the herbivorous species (plant eaters) would occasionally bite humans.  Wheeler* describes in greater depth the occasional bites by Mirids considered to be obligate herbivores (i.e. must eat plants)  that on rare occasion will bite us, somewhat like a vegan indulging in the guilty pleasure of a Big Mac.

The reasons for this behavior are unclear, and it is likely that they are seeking nourishment, minerals or moisture. The majority of records of Miridae biting are from North American species, as listed below.***  This Ceratocapsus genera is not recorded as a biter.  It is likely that many other species have taken a nip on a casual hiker and escaped under the entomological radar.

*       Biology of Plant Bugs, Wheeler
**    Carl W. Schaefer: Heteropteran Adventitious Biters (Hemiptera):  Primitively Predaceous? 
***  Urban Insects - Miridae

Saturday, June 3, 2017

War of the Roses

Climbing Prairie Rose, Rosa setigera. - REK
Rosa setigera - REK
We encountered these beautiful roses while spraying Sericea Lespedeza at La Petite Gemme Prairie.  They had pink blossoms and particularly striking were the colorful stems.  I knew they weren't our hated Multiflora Rose which has white blossoms but otherwise I didn't know the difference.  I emailed Carol Davit of MPF who identified them as Climbing Prairie Roses, Rosa setigera.  She also taught me a little about stipules, the feature that had caught my eye in the picture above.

Multiflora rose - USDA Plant Database

Stipule is a term coined by Linnaeus to describe outgrowths on the side of the petiole (leaf stalk).  In most native roses these are winged as seen in the pink and green stipules at the top of the page.  The invasive Rosa Multiflora that we spend so much effort killing is the only Missouri rose that has a fringe of stipules around the base of the petiole.

Winged stipule - click to enlarge
The MPF Bioblitz is a great place to learn more about prairie ecology, botany and animal life.  It will be at Stillwell Prairie on June 10-11th.  I would "stipulate" that you should try to sign up for some of the sessions at this link.

While acting as Barb's Sherpa by carrying a sprayer of Remedy and following her pointer to "spray that," I had a chance to photograph a few prairie highlights that are posted in this Flickr album. has a good description of roses' features and provided the bottom three photographs.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Regal Moth and the Devil

The pictures above were sent to me by a dear friend who shall remain anonymous except to say that she is a real Trouper.  In case you missed school on the day there was sex education, this was X-rated in my day but is now probably only PG-13.  

The stars of the show are Regal Moths, aka. Royal Walnut Moths, Citheronia regalis, the largest moth by mass in North America.  Like other saturniids such as the Luna and Cecropia Moths it lacks a digestive system.  They fly for up to a week, males searching for the fairer sex with their feathery antennae.  After mating and laying eggs they pass on to the great walnut tree in the sky.

Hickory Horned Devil - Click to enlarge

I was excited (not that way) to see these pictures as this is a Most Wanted species for the Butterfly Festival.  The photographer was able to find them hours later and put them in a large paper bag.  The female will lay her eggs on the walls of the bag and the caterpillars will be raised safe from predators and parasites. The final instar is the Hickory Horned Devil which we hope will come of age in time for the Caterpillar Petting Zoo.

This is the largest caterpillar in the US, measuring up to 6 inches long, and also one of the coolest.  The prominent horns on its head rounds out its fearsome appearance but it is really harmless unless you happen to be a tree.*  Pity the poor sweetgum in this time-lapse video.  Although their horns are not sharp, they can defend themselves with some devilish dance moves as seen in this  Youtube video.
First instar with egg **
Third instar - Delaware Nature Society
Late instar - Jon Rapp
Like many other Lepidoptera, there is a considerable difference in color and appearance between the first caterpillar instar out of the egg and the subsequent four instars.  The final instar turns from a bright green to turquoise over a day.  It finally crawls down to the ground and burrows a chamber five to six inches deep.  There it forms a pupa without spinning a cocoon.

 Be sure to save the date of June 24th to see the devil up close at the Butterfly Festival at the Springfield Botanical Gardens.

Video by Dr. Chris Barnhart
* These caterpillars feed on several trees and shrubs including walnuts, hickories, buttonbush, persimmon, sumac, and sweet gum as well as (good news!) invasive bush honeysuckle.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lone Star Tick Revenge

Lone Star Tick on tape
Memorial Day Special for those who have encountered ticks this weekend.

Ticks are thriving at Bull Mills.  I have even encountered my first tick of the day on arrival, hanging on the lock on the front gate.  They climb all over the UTV, probably sensing the CO2 from the exhaust, a definite tick turn-on.  In spite of a liberal dosing of DEET and treating our clothing liberally with permethrin we commonly find them crawling on our clothes and bodies when we return home.

We have learned to keep transparent tape around the house and truck to remove them when ever they are crawling around.  Mashing tape on one is a satisfying feeling but if I want real revenge, I touch it lightly, attaching it to the scutum (hard shell back on the thorax) only, leaving the legs free to struggle like a turtle on its back.  The result on this Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum) can be seen in this video.

Dog Tick -
Spider anatomy -
To help you figure out some of the moving parts you can use diagrams of the ventral view of a dog tick from Landers University in South Carolina. Spiders and ticks are arachnids, generally eight-legged and with some anatomical features in common.  Consider a spider which has chelicera, fangs and pedipalps which you can see in a good macro photograph.  These structures are all packed away in the little tick gnathosoma, the curved proboscis-like device flailing up and down in the video, wondering where I went.

The gnathosoma is the business end of a tick from my perspective, the thing that penetrates the skin. For some of you this may be what my kids used to call "way too much information."  The pedipalps grasp a fold of skin and hang on while the chelicerae cut through the epidermis.  The hypostome penetrates the wound and its teeth anchors it, the part that is hanging on when your skin tents up as you pull on the tick with tweezers.  The pedipalps also anchor it as it feeds.

So what is the tick left with when you pull up its "anchor"?  Assuming you get all of the tick, it may still have some of your debris.  This from the lab's instructions*:
"If your (tick) specimen was torn abruptly from its host there is likely to be host skin still caught in the gnathosoma and it must be removed. Use fine forceps to extract it. As you will soon see, the gnathosoma is equipped with recurved (posteriorly pointing) teeth designed specifically to prevent what you are attempting to do, i.e. separate the tick from the host's skin. Remember that the teeth face posteriorly and move the skin in that direction to unhook it from the teeth. Then pull the skin anteriorly to remove it. Repeat the process as often as necessary to free the skin."
Once you have removed the tick with tweezers you can crush it by squeezing with both hands, roast it over a burning match or candle, or even flush it down the toilet.  Or you can save the water like we do and just stick it on a piece of tape and leave it on the edge of the sink with all the other pieces of tick tape as a way of keeping score.
--- Lone Star Tick details

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Yesterday I hooked up the brush hog to the tractor and drove about 6 feet, then looked back to check its elevation and glimpsed something in the bare shaded ground beneath where it had rested.  I had been walking around the mower in the grass just seconds before.

The timber rattlesnake was tightly curled and from a distance I couldn't see the head.  I raced back to the the house to get my camera and it hadn't moved.  I shot pictures with a telephoto and determined it was facing me.  It was perfectly still and maybe dead so I finally touched it with a long stick and it moved its head slightly, just enough to determine that it was alive.

When I got down low to get the face shot above, I could tell that it was grumpy.  I think its lethargy was due to the 65 degree cloudless day.  This time of day the snakes we see are usually basking in the sun.  Another possibility was that it was shedding which temporarily effects its vision and vulnerability.  Either way I could tell that it just wanted to be left alone.

We are not amused.
When I returned an hour later it was gone.  This was in the field with Barb's garden so I mowed the grass in the field short.....real short!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Blackberry Seed Gall

5-sided stem

At a scouting camp out Saturday, Dave Shanholtzer gave me this gall puzzle.  It was a dried stem with tiny sharp thorns.  Those thorns and its ribbed five-sided stem were typical of a blackberry cane but what was the gall?

Blackberry knot gall -
Blackberry knot gall - Nancy Kent

Google "blackberry stem gall" and you get a wide variety of different shaped galls.  A dedicated amateur gall hunter can search for a long time and find little information and then come on a treasure trove such as this posting on blackberry knot galls.  It shows the entire life cycle, unusual in its completeness.

I found Dave's gall in a naturalist's bible, Eiseman's Tracks and Signs.  It is a blackberry seed gall caused by a cynipid gall wasp Diastrophus cuscutae-formis.  Unlike many of the lumpy distortions created by many gall makers, this one is a work of art when it is young.  The Missouri Botanical Garden specimen to the right bears little resemblance to the gnarly gall in hand, once the tiny wasps leave home.

Rope dodder fruit - Minnesota Wildflowers
The Linnaean* classification system of genus and species is difficult for many of us.  A search for  D. cuscutae-formis  was complicated by the spelling with the superfluous hyphen, ignored by many sources.  I wasn't able to come up with the derivation of Diastrophus but the cuscutae-formis refers to the gall's resemblance to a cluster of dodder (Cuscuta) fruits which wrap around the host plant.  In this case, each "seed" contains the larva of a tiny wasp, providing shelter, humidity and food.  Eventually the tiny grub-like creature becomes a wasp that chews its way out, and can fly into the world.

A while back, Brandon Butler of the Conservation Federation of Missouri** asked if I hunt.  My first response was "No, I don't any more."  Then I realized that I hunt every day, just different game.  Some times we eat what I find (mushrooms) but more often it is for galls or "catch and release" insects to study.  Now I am off to our blackberry patch to look for my own blackberry seed gall.

*   Linnaeus and his classification system is discussed in this recent New York Times travel story.
** Join us at Explore the Outdoors Springfield with a sneak preview of the WOW museum on June 17th.