Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dogwood Leaf Gall

I found this gall on the underside of a Gray Dogwood leaf tonight. The upper side had only a faint dimple on the surface. This was the only one I found.  A review of Bugguide identified it as Craneiobia tuba,  one of the many gall midges (Cecidomyiinae).  The larva are said to be orange and the adults haven't been raised.  And that was the end of what is known about them.

Tiny gall midge 0.1 inch- Wikipedia
Gall and wood midges (Cecidomyiidae) are a large family with over 1000 species in our area.  Bugguide describes them as "minute, delicate flies (1-5 mm) with long legs and usually relatively long antennae, and with reduced wing venation.  With their tiny size and cryptic lifestyle, it is no surprise that  so little is known about most species.  Even photographing their larva in the galls is a major challenge.

Gall Midge adult- Charley Eiseman
The Wikipedia article has more than you want to know about their genitalia and other anatomical structures.  It is sufficient to say that they have a broad range of lifestyles and some are even predators or parasitoids of crop pests such as aphids and scale insects.  Most however lay their eggs on plants, forming galls where their larva develop using the plants resources.  Given my passion for galls, 1000 species to learn should last me a while.

This gall lives on a very common but economically unimportant species, the Cornus or Dogwoods.   Research is funded primarily by studying insects that affect agricultural plants, or "follow the money" as they said in All the Presidents Men.  It is unlikely that a formal study will focus on this species in the near future.  Not that C. tuba cares.  It is doing quite well without our attention.

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!)
Also see

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!

Woolly Aphids from Charley Eiseman
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 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
Tick prevention suggestions at 

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.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bargain Bear

Black Bear in Missouri- Noppadol Paothong- MDC
"A man who earlier this month killed a black bear in Jefferson County and tossed the head and hide into a creek paid more in court costs than the $99.50 fine he received." His final bill including court costs was $203.
That is the opening line of a story in today's News-Leader.  Before you read further, read the newspaper story.

Now lets do some comparison shopping, considering that we do not have a hunting season and have an estimated 300-350 bears.
  • Arkansas has an estimated bear population of 5,000.  A non-resident hunting license in Arkansas which includes bear is $350. 
  • Minnesota has an estimated black bear population of 20,000.  A non-resident bear hunting license in Minnesota is $230 but of course you would have travel expenses, etc.
It is illegal to kill a black bear in Missouri unless it is threatening a human or livestock or damaging property.  This case with a cost of $203 seems to make poaching a bargain.  The maximum fine in Missouri is $1,000 and a year in jail but that all goes away if you plead guilty to poaching.  Let's compare that to our neighbors, Iowa and Kansas, as reported in another News-Leader article. 
  • "Kansas recently implemented a trophy poaching law that bases its fines on the size of a deer or elk's antlers. An illegally killed deer whose antlers scored 200 inches could cost a poacher up to $20,000, while an elk with antlers scoring 350 inches would set a poacher back as much as $45,000."
  • "Like Missouri, Iowa can seek civil penalties in county courts for poaching cases. But it also sets costly restitution fines for some of its game animals. Restitution fines for a deer with antlers that score more than 150 inches, for example, range from $5,000 to $10,000 with community service, or up to $20,000 if the poacher declines to do community service."
If you read the article at the top of the page you know that this case was even more egregious.  (If you didn't read it, shame on you - go back to the start.)  A bill proposed by State Representative Linda Black never made it out of committee this year.
"Under Black's bill, anyone who illegally killed an elk or black bear in Missouri would face an additional fine of $3,500. Killing a turkey illegally could cost an extra $750, while taking a deer illegally could add $1,500 to whatever civil penalty a local judge might order. "
 I think you will agree that at $203, that was a bargain bear.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Don't Sweat These Bees

Sweat bee on hand - REK
Sweat bees are a common occurrence on the deck at Bull Mills where we provide a stable target.  This one was particularly hard up as I wasn't sweating and yet it returned to my arm repeatedly.  I decided if we were going to be that close, I ought to get to know it. 

The first vote from Bi-State Bugs was Lasioglossum sp.  This is the largest bee genus with 1700 species.  Most are slender and 50% are dull to metallic black, while others are metallic green, blue or purple.  Most are solitary and ground dwelling but there are many outliers that are found in rotting wood and a few that form colonies.

Sweat bees in general are in the family Halictidae.  They are attracted to our sweat possibly for the salt although they also seem to like hanging on the rims cans and glasses of soft drinks.  This is where most stings occur.  The females are the ones capable of  stinging but only when disturbed and the sting is mild, a 1 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.*  They can hang on and inject more toxin so brush them off quickly.

Prior to the introduction of the European honey bee, these were our most numerous pollinators, and they continue to play an important role.  Especially as the honey bee is facing declining numbers with colony collapse, sweat bees are very important pollinators for wildflowers and crops, so try to politely brush them away to find another source of sugar than your drink.

 * More background on the Schmidt Index in Wikipedia.