Saturday, May 28, 2016

World Beneath Our Feet

Preparing to discuss mycorrhizal fungi a few years ago I began to appreciate a little of what is going on in the soil I walk on.  There were estimates that a tennis ball sized handful of good soil can contain:
  • 5,000,000,000 bacteria
  • 5,000,000 protozoa
  • 5,000 nematodes
  • 1.5 miles of fungal hyphae
Of course that is a very simplified view.  Soil composition is a complex combination of organic and inorganic chemicals as well as the biological components of animals and plants, both alive and decaying that are constantly changing the mixture.

An article from National Geographic describes "A new atlas, released Wednesday at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, attempts to map this biodiversity around the world."  While not exactly a "page turner" it has great descriptions of soil development, structure, composition etc.

It will be available in hard copy from the EU Bookshop for 25 euros in the future.  If you can't wait, or are cheap like me, you can download high or low resolution* PDF copies for free at this link.

*Low resolution is perfect for my reading on the screen or printing.  High resolution is only needed for formal printing and the download is 335 MB so be prepared for a long download time.

Thanks again to Dave Shanholzer for sending this to me.

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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Coralroot Orchid

Mark Bower was surveying Valley Water Mill Park once again for fungi when he came across this beauty which is sometimes called Fungal Flower.  He identified it as a Spring Coralroot orchid, Corallorhiza wisteriana and as usual got some beautiful photographs.

The protruding lower lip is typical of many orchids, but it doesn't start like that.  "Interestingly, the lip is actually derived from the uppermost petal, but in most species the flower twists during development so that the lip is oriented at the bottom." Ted C. Macrae

Like Indian Pipe it is myco-heterotrophic, a big word but easy to break down.  Heterotroph is other feeding, and myco refers to fungi.  They lack  chlorophyll and obtain nutrition from mycorrhizal fungi in the soil.  It is found throughout much of the US, frequently in forest settings.  Mycotrophic flowers were considered saprophytic in the past and some sources continue to use the term.  Saprophytic implies living on dead matter while these flowers have an active parasitic relationship with the fungi, taking nutrition while giving nothing back except above ground beauty.

As you might expect it is easy to overlook with its brown-purple flowers hiding on the forest floor.  It escapes most botanical surveys as it may stay dormant underground for years between blooms.  They prefer rocky acidic soils of low wooded valleys and ravines along streams.

There are 34 species of orchids in Missouri, 200 in the US and Canada.  

Monday, May 9, 2016

Ticks, Deer and Fire

Tick infested fawn - Sam Leatherman
Ticks can be a major annoyance and transmit disease but I had never considered them a significant cause of wildlife mortality.  An article from the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) documents how serious a problem this can be.  "According to The Field Manual of Wildlife Diseases in the Southeastern United States, a comprehensive guide published by SCWDS, "heavy infestations of [ticks] may produce fawn mortality up to a reported estimate of 30 percent.”  Wildlife biologist Brian Towe reports:
"In 2012, I encountered 33 fawns that had become blinded in both eyes due to the onset of infection from the high volume of ticks surrounding the eye socket. Unfortunately those fawns were euthanized after efforts to improve their condition failed. While 33 isn’t a large number over a broad landscape, that number came from a single Missouri county, a scenario that played out through many other counties of Southern Missouri that year. One fawn that I and a wildlife rehabilitator worked to save had 316 ticks removed from the right eye and 257 from the left! So, while most deer managers highlight the impacts of hemorrhagic disease during 2012, I also reflect on the impact ticks had on our future standing crop."
In the early 20th century many Ozarkers burned their fields to get rid of ticks.  Does that work?  Another article in  QDMA says yes, for a year.  Several sources cited say that the next year the tick population rebounded, sometimes to a higher level.

Research conducted in the Missouri Ozarks by Brian F. Allen was published in 2009, showing that same decrease and rebound pattern.  The lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) larva density was the greatest 2 years after a burn, six times higher than in adjacent unburned areas.  Deer density was also greater as they moved in to feast in the newly emerging grasses, a trick well known to the Osage in the presettlement period.  Unfortunately the deer bring in their ticks which find a new home.

Now here is where it gets really weird.  Research by the same Brian F. Allen showed that deer are attracted to areas dense with invasive bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), increasing the number of lone star ticks which transmit ehrlichiosis to humans.  Experimental removal of bush honeysuckle caused a reduction in deer population and infected tick numbers.  It also reduced the number of blood meals away from deer.
Attacking invasive bush honeysuckle is a win-win!  More on bush honeysuckle and ticks is on this previous blog.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

One-flowered Cancer Root

Mark Bower photographed this dainty beauty.  Wildflowers don't get much smaller than this and you are seeing all there is to it.  This is a Single-flowered Cancer Root (Orobanche uniflora), also called One-flowered Broomrape.  Not particularly warm and fuzzy names.

It grows on a 3 to 10 inch stem with a single white or purple flower.  Don't bother looking for green leaves because it doesn't have any.  It also lacks chlorophyll like Spring Coralroot, Dutchman's Pipe and Indian Pipe but that is where the similarity ends.  Those species get their carbon and nutrients from a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi.

The Cancer Root is a parasite on multiple plant species including Sedums and members of the families Saxifragaceae and Asteraceae.  Since these plants are wide spread it is able to grow all over the US and Canada.  The tiny wind-blown seed require a chemical from its host plant before they will germinate.  They will sometime seem to disappear from an area, only to reappear later, probably due to underground roots only producing flowers occasionally.  Needless to say, these do not transplant well.

More information at Illinois Wildflowers.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Marathon Bear

Jeff Beringer reported that one of our Missouri black bears just completed a marathon trip from southern Christian County to the area east of Hermann.  That is over 200 miles as the crow flies and bear 1417 can't fly so he must have put on far more miles.  I can only imagine his adventures along the way.

Original collaring of 1417 in 2014
Bear 1417 was trapped on Cobb Ridge in southern Christian county off of Highway H on June 26, 2014.  If you go to Missouri Black Bear Project and enter his number you will see his picture after the collar was attached.  He was a one year old male weighing 80 pounds.  Over the next year he logged over 253 miles before his collar fell of at its scheduled time.  This mileage estimate is based on daily readings and doesn't include his ramblings during each day.

When he was trapped again on May 2, 2016, roughly 22 months later he weighed 172 pounds, over twice his previous weight.  Male bears average a home range of 120 square miles so his 200+ linear miles was a state record so far.  Jeff made this observation about the trip:
"We worked him up yesterday and outfitted him with a new collar that should reveal future movements. What is really interesting is the topography/habitat area of southern Warren county actually looks similar to parts of Christian county, makes you wonder if he decided to winter here for that reason. Based on trail camera pics from the public we believe he showed up in central MO last summer: I didn’t think he’d stay but he obviously denned there this winter. I still don’t think he will stay in Warren county in the absence of a female bear but we will see."
Visiting Bull Creek - click to enlarge
I went to the website to see 1417's path and was startled to see that it actually was within 200 yards of our house on Bull Creek on September 19 and October 2, 2014.  Those readings were the snapshot and he might even have come to the house!  We maintain an emergency email list which we use to have everyone pull in their garbage and dog food if a bear is spotted, so they don't stay around.

Range of Bear 1417 in 2014-2015
You can see the paths of many of the collared black bears being studied by wildlife biologists under Jeff.  Go to this Missouri Black Bear Project link and click on "Track"which will show you the areas of some of the bears.  Select "Markers On' and look for an area of interest to see if there has been a collared bear in your vicinity.  Only a few of the estimated 300+ bears in Missouri have been collared for a year but you may get lucky.  We did!

I thought our marathon bear's number 1417 was perfect.  If it decides to call home to Christian County, all he has to do is look at his ear tag to get the area code and start by dialing 1-417.
Update 5028-2016
1417 has now moved south.  To quote Jeff Beringer:
"Bear 1417 continues to move, he’s moved over 230 straight line miles since he started his dispersal in Christian county.  He should be in pretty good bear range now. "

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Invasive Cuckoo's Pint

Linda Ellis* sent a report of an new alien invasive species at Valley Water Mill.  It is called Italian arum or Italian lords-and-ladies (also orange candleflower, cuckoo's pint....go figure). Formally named Arum italicum, it is native to the Mediterranean, Great Britain and scattered European and island locations. It has been popular with gardeners as a companion plant in hosta gardens as it blossoms as the hostas fade.

Cuckoo's Pint at Valley Water Mill - Linda Ellis
If this plant looks vaguely familiar, you probably are thinking of our native Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema tryphyllum. Fold down the hood and you can see the similarity. Both plants are arums and all parts of them are poisonous.

Spadix and spathe - MoBotGarden
Jack-in the pulpit describes them in technical terms.
"Each flower consists of (1) an erect, finger-like spadix covered with minute, creamy white flowers and (2) a large, sheath-like, light green spathe (bract) which subtends and partially envelops the spadix like a hood. Flowers produced in spring. Arrowhead-shaped, long-petioled, glossy grayish-green leaves with pale green midribs are 8-12" long. After bloom, the leaves and spathe die back leaving only the thick spadix which develops attractive, bright orange-red berries in summer." 
Arum italicum has an interesting characteristic.  It and a few other Arum species are thermogenic.  A tiny thermometer placed on the upper free portion of the spadix may show a temperature of 6 to 10 degrees Celsius above the surrounding air.  In one study it even registered 17 degrees higher, one hot little number.  This apparently only occurs in brief periods while flowering.

Arum italicum is a good example of an early escapee. It has been reported one time before in Greene County in 2010.  The map at suggests that it is quite early in its spread and only time will tell if it becomes a major problem but anytime an exotic plant starts to show up where it wasn't planted it becomes a concern.

Not only is it bad for our native plants but it is also a risk to humans.  All parts of the plant are poisonous and eating it can be fatal.  Gloves are advisable in removing it as contact with this plant can cause skin irritation.  Oregon has a lot of experience with it and here is their advice;
"Getting rid of Italian arum is a pain. Even professional land managers struggle with it, which is why early control is very important.  Herbicides don't work well and digging it up is a lot of work. Manual removal is only recommended on small patches, because soil disturbance tends to increase the spread of the plant.  All plant parts and nearby soil should be placed in a bag and disposed of in the trash -- not your yard waste bin or home compost. Infested sites should be checked weekly to stay on top of any new sprouts."
This is a species of concern.  We are early in its invasion.....we think.  Like many escapees (think Callary pear), it is best to attack before we are faced with another ecological crisis.

*Mike Kromrey and Rob Hunt saw a plant they didn't recognize and sent the photographs to Linda Ellis.  Curiosity pays..
** The Corpse Flower that was at the Botanical Center in 2010 is also thermogenic.  See this link for details. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Yellow-throated Warbler

"Fuzzy Beak" the Bull Mills Yellow-throated warbler
Hanging out with birders gives us a whole new perspective on nature.  On a wildflower walk we can recognize birders as they are looking up when everyone else is scanning the ground.  They can frequently recognize a bird by its movement or behaviors - think of watching a robin's distinctive hopping around the yard.

A beak full of fuzz
We were sitting on our deck with Charley and Lisa when a small bird flew onto a tree trunk.  I figured it was one of the chickadees from the feeder but they immediately identified it as a Yellow-throated Warbler, Setophaga dominica.  I needed binoculars to confirm that the small black and white bird indeed had a yellow throat.
Looks like Home Depot to this warbler- Charley Burwick
It spent several minutes each trip working on one section of the trunk.
With magnification we could see a piece of string wrapped around the trunk. The bird was tenacious in attempts to get the string free but each time had to be satisfied with a few strands of nylon.  You can watch the tug-o-war in this video.

Birds are very resourceful in selecting nesting materials.  Man made materials are found increasingly in some bird nests as they move into the suburbs and find less nesting material in our mowed yards and manicured shrubs.  Even cigarette filters are incorporated in some urban nests and conceivably they could deter mites as discuss in a previous blog.  We will be discussing bird nests in a future blog.