Friday, April 26, 2019

Banded Hickory Borer

This critter was flying around in the house at a dinner party the other night.  Like any Master Naturalist I whipped out a bug box and took it home.  The first choice on INaturalist was the banded hickory borer, a perfect visual fit.  It is a warm and fuzzy creature with heavy eye shadow above the eyes and long sexy antennae. "The better to sniff out your hickory my dear!" It measured an inch long and was very patiently waiting in the refrigerator the next morning.

The banded hickory borer (BHB - Knulliana cincta) actually isn't that picky, laying their eggs in bark crevices on hickory, ash and several other species.  The adult bores into the tree to lay its eggs.  "The larvae feed under the bark during the remainder of the summer, forming galleries in the wood and ejecting frass through openings in the bark. During the fall and following summer larvae continue to feed in the wood and pupate in the fall or spring between lumps of frass at the end of the larval gallery. The life cycle most likely requires two years for completion."

These beetles are actually kind of cute once you get to know them although they can pinch lightly with their jaws if you hold them tight.  They make a squeaking sound by stridulation by rubbing their body parts together, like running your finger down a comb.  They do this when threatened but it doesn't take much, just a little poking with a pencil eraser did the trick with this one.  You can hear this one here recorded on my phone.

They are considered a forest pest by many sites but but an interesting insect on others.  I suspect this depends upon your supply of trees.  If you have just one or two trees for them to feed upon they might cause considerable damage and make you call the Department of Conservation and yell "HELP."  Aside from praying for the arrival of the ichneumonid wasp, Labena grallator, which sometimes parasitizes their larvae, it is just a matter of waiting for the balance of nature to arrive.

With the exceptions of insects that transmit disease and invasive species that destroy our natural environment, most of the "pests" are just insects and plants trying to make a living like they did thousands of years before we arrived with our preconditioned notions of nature as a mowed lawn and the perfect tree in the front yard.  I suspect some of them are muttering under their breath, "Hey bipeds, just get over it!"

Monday, April 22, 2019

Morel Lessons

A cluster of morels in the road - not Photoshopped
A friend asked me what is the biggest surprise I had at Bull Mills and this Saturday would have to rank high on that list.  I have always thought the reason we find so few morels on our property is the rocky soil.  After two days, 7 hours and 2+ miles of slow strolling through the woods I was rewarded with just 12 morels.  Then I opened the garage to take out the ATV and found these in the gravel drive, a total of 5!

Click to enlarge
Obviously these morels weren't inhibited by the gravel drive or the compacted  soil underneath.  This is one tough species!  I shared the pictures with our chapter mycologist Mark Bower and he replied "Holy Moly."  There has always been debate among experts on how many species of the Morchella genus there are, somewhere between 3 and 30. * (Wikipedia)  I assumed with his sophisticated technical knowledge he was giving me the species name.  After all, Moley sounds a lot like another common name for them, a Molly Moocher.

In a followup email he corrected me, pointing out this was a double entendre, as Holy Moly is an expression of amazement with origins back to 1892 and popularized in comics by Billy Batson, the alter-ego of Captain Marvel.  In this case however he was referring to the fact that we found them on Good Friday, a holy day.  What a scholar!

Black Morel - Mark Bower
Being corrected by Mark is nothing new.  I sent him the picture above of the morels we found 2 weeks ago when we were out hiking with Allan and Gala.  The earliest morels are the so-called black morels and I was excited to have finally found one.   He politely educated me on my morals.  That was a typo but it probably still applies.

"The yellow morels can be pretty dark, gray, etc. The “black morels” (Morchella angusticeps) around here are pretty uncommon. The best way to differentiate - the ridges of black morels are darker than the pits; with yellow morels the pits are darker than the ridges. Here is the only black morel I have ever seen: (photo taken with film camera!!)"

Slug on a fingertip
The final lesson is to carefully clean your mushrooms both inside and out.  Barb found this cute baby slug, just over a quarter inch long when she cut open a morel.  "A few slugs and other things will eat them. But humans have probably been eating them for about as long as there have been humans."(
Snails are part our food chain when we don't clean a mushroom thoroughly.  "These critters have about 90 calories per 100 grams of "meat," which is high in protein (12 to 16 percent) and rich in minerals." (Outdoorlife)

Charley Burwick wrote implying that the mushrooms above might have been Photoshopped into the image.  I resent the implication and assure you that those photographs were taken today with my wife as my witness, no matter what photographic crimes may have occurred at Bull Creek in the past by the Fishin Magicians.
More Morel Madness by the Fishin Magicians

*   "True morels split off from all other fungal species 129 million years ago, during the beginning of the Cretaceous Period. Back then, mammals were primitive little things, dinosaurs still ruled the world and morels were kind of an afterthought.   This pretty much proves that dinosaurs had small brains or lacked culinary skills.  Since then, morels have evolved into 177 related species.

Based on new genetic analysis, scientists now know that morels are very old, but not at all the oldest of 1.5 million species of fungi. They are found widely around the world, probably traveled with the continents as they drifted apart, but still look pretty much the same way they did millions of years ago." (

Friday, April 19, 2019

Spring Beauty Colors

On our first Wildflower Walk of 2019, the spring beauty, Claytonia virginica, were carpeting the forest floor along the Mail Trace Road.  These are tiny flowers, not particularly striking unless you bend down for a close look.

They have tiny streaks of color called nectar guides.  These are paths like a painted stripe leading to the nectary where the flower's pollen is waiting to be spread.  The nectary contains the rewards for the pollinator, sweet nectar, oils, resins, and scents and sometimes the pollen itself.  For the pollinator it is about reward, for the plant it is pure sex.

What was striking was the variety of colors in the petals.  They ranged from an almost pure white with faint pink streaks to the background white almost blotted out by the wide deep purple
nectar guides, converting it to what almost looks like a different species.  There was soon a lot of discussion of why the different colors side by side.  Could it be the time of blooming or the temperature variations in the soil?

It turns out that others have asked this same question.   A study by Frank M. Frey out of Indiana University found that the differences were genetic, controlled by two different compounds and created 4 distinct color morphs ranging from all white to mostly crimson.  The results are simplified to my level in this description from

"...pollinators, which for Claytonia are solitary bees, do, in fact, prefer crimson color morphs. This helps to explain the greater number of crimson colored flowers in any given area because the more pollinator visits, the higher overall fitness for that plant. What it does not explain though, is why white morphs exist in the population at all."  
"The flavonols that produce white pigmentation also beef up the plants defenses. Frey found that white colored flowers experienced significantly less predation than crimson flowers. Herbivory has serious consequences for Claytonia and plants that receive high levels of herbivore damage are far more likely to die. Because of this, white morphs, even with significantly less reproductive fitness, are able to maintain themselves in any given population."

Monday, April 15, 2019

Living Room Ants

We walked into our living room at the creek and found these ants clustered around a small black fragment. We were conflicted by the problem of "securing our border" (i.e. the front door sill) while removing the ant migrants safely. We tried brushing them, considered baiting and finally used extreme measures on the remaining few while two escaped under the sofa.

James Trager identified the ants as eastern black carpenter ants Camponotus pennsylvanicus.  Its claim to fame is that it was the first North American ant to be described.  It is ubiquitous east of the Rockies and can be very destructive when out of its natural woodland habitat, chewing wood in our structures. They only eat dead wood that has some degree of softening by rot.  Ants might argue that they were here long before we were and the conflict comes from humans and their wood dwellings that have encroached on the ants' territory.

Munching on a spider head
"C. pennsylvanicus can be distinguished from other carpenter ant species by the dull black color of the head and body, and by whitish or yellowish hairs on the abdomen."  This is a highly social species that lives in trees and rotting logs in the forest. Colonies can contain over a thousand ants, and can occasionally produce a crackling sound. The workers forage for food and can tend aphids, harvesting their honeydew for the colony. They also feed on dead insects like our specimen above. Wikipedia

Now we are concerned about those two ants that are isolated and lonely under the sofa. There is scientific evidence in this study that a related species, Camponotus fellah, have a shortened life span when they are isolated and presumably depressed.  Isolated ants lived only six days, whereas group-living ants lived up to ten times as long (averaging 66 days of life).
"Although isolated ants ingested the same amount of food as grouped ants, they retained food in the crop, hence preventing its use as an energy source. Moreover, the difference in life span between single and grouped individuals vanished when ants were not fed. This study thus underlines the role of social interactions as key regulators of energy balance, which ultimately affects aging and health in a highly social organism." *  Lonely Ants Die Young 
Dolomedes tenebrosus - James Trager
I tentatively identified the fragment of the ants' victim as remains of a Dolmedes sp spider.  The eye arrangement is distinctive with the lower four eyes curving upward like a smile, unlike the frown of other members of the Pisauridae family of nursery web spiders.  They are so named because they carry their egg sacs in their jaws.  Coincidentally, James reminded me that he had previously shared the photograph above with me, taken in our cabin!
"By the way, I took pictures a live Dolomedes tenebrosus when I was in your cabin. They like the moist woods and riparian sites, and hang out on tree trunks looking like bark. I’ve never found one at the actual water’s edge, where related Pisaurina mira lives."
Meanwhile, I considered forming a support group for the lonely and starving pair of ants under the couch but Barb has convinced me that I am suffering from excessive anthropomorphic thoughts.  If they emerge they will likely be euthanized with her finger. 

* Social isolation causes mortality by disrupting energy homeostasis in ants. 

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

All Natural Breakfast

Indian-meal moth of winter - 9mm     REK
Last month I saw the first flying insect of winter on the creek house bathroom wall.  It was 9mm long and I readily identified it on INaturalist as an Indian-meal moth, Plodia interpunctella.  It occurs on all the continents and is named because it is commonly found in Indian meal, i.e. corn meal.  It is considered the most important pest in stored food products in America and is omnivorous, consuming grain products, seeds, dried fruit, dog food, and spices. (Florida University Entomology)

Intact pupa
The next week I started to pour some crunchy cereal into my bowl for breakfast when I saw something roll out of the bag.  When I was a child in the 1950's breakfast cereals advertised "a toy in every box!"  Now 68 years later this "toy" was "organic" just like the cereal.  It was a well formed 7mm pupa with the future wings visible along the back.

Empty pupa case on a toothpick for scale - REK
We hadn't opened that cereal box for several months, the plastic bag inside was rolled up tight and it was stored in a plastic box with snap on lid. After breakfast I noticed several things clinging to the inside of the clear plastic bag.  These were empty pupa cases the same size as the moth, attached by silk to the clear plastic cereal bag. I picked this one up on a toothpick for photos.

Cereal flake with larvae and lots of frass - REK

After emptying the bag on a plate I sorted through the breakfast cereal with a magnifier. Six of the flakes were packed with extra organic nutrition, not too bad for a nearly full box. Tiny 3mm larvae clinging to them as well as little white eggs and a lot of frass.   Just think, the whole life cycle present in our kitchen!
According to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), the larvae travel away from the food source to pupate, increasing their chances of survival.  They are able to chew their way through plastic and cardboard boxes, probably how they were able to attack our cereal.  The site has an extensive list of foods they can attack including cereal, grains, beans, nuts, flour, dried fruit, birdseed, dry animal food, spices, tea, chocolate, and candies.

If by now you  are getting a little paranoid,  the NPIC also has an extensive list of Control Tips that could keep you busy for a week.  I for one will be eating my cereal a lot faster and maybe not look at it under magnification quite so often.

For more details, try 

If you haven't had enough fun yet, you may want to read Bug Eric's suggestions for an indoor bug hunt.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Bombardiers, True and False

One advantage of country living is that you don't always have to go out to find nature - sometimes it comes in to find you.  Last Friday I saw this ground beetle crossing the living room floor, intent on finding safety under the couch.  It wasn't too happy to end up in the box, but at least it didn't fire its defenses at me.

This is a false bombardier beetle, most likely Galerita bicolor or possibly G. janus.  The two species are both common and similar in appearance.  The head and pronotum shapes are somewhat different, but I don't have the ability to separate them without a key and a lot more knowledge.  My guess is G. bicolor but go to and make your choice.

Galerita are said to be found in forested areas, in or under decaying or rotting timber.  This didn't give me much confidence in our cabin flooring until I found a number of sites recording finding them in houses and basements.  They are carnivorous predators, eating primarily caterpillars and other insects.  I imagine they think they are in a cafeteria in our creek house which is seemingly porous to all invertebrates (and a few vertebrates of rodent-like inclinations).

The specimen above was a "boot dissection" - found on the bathroom floor - that shows several key features.  You first see the elytra (hardened wing covers) that have linear grooves.  They protect the membranous wings below which have to be "inflated" with fluid before the beetle can fly.  Because this takes time, flight is not its best strategy when escaping a predator.  Instead it makes like a skunk and puts up a stink, possibly from the glands above, exposed at the tip of the abdomen. 

False bombardier beetles demonstrate that chemical warfare is nothing unique to humans.  It has glands on the abdomen which produce formic acid with a little acetic acid thrown in for good measure.  This produces a noxious odor, discouraging predators and can cause a burning sensation on the skin.  They have two side-by-side glands and nozzles and can selectively spray the side that is being attacked, such as holding a leg with tweezers.  They hold the other side's gland in reserve and can administer another six doses before running dry.

With armament like that, you might ask "then what does a true bombardier beetle have up its abdomen?"  The true bombardier beetles are smaller but don't let that fool you.  Their weapons are much more powerful, with separate chambers holding hydroquinones and hydrogen peroxide, suddenly mixed together with oxidative enzymes just as they are fired.  The chemical reaction heats the spray to near boiling temperature and the gas powers the spray.  To quote the Bug Lady, "drop for drop, the chemical is more potent than skunk spray, and a toad that is sprayed in the mouth gags, sticks out its tongue and rubs it against the ground."

"Just chillin' out."
Like many other insects, these beetles don't like having their picture taken.  Many species will fly away just before you finishing focusing on them.  In this case, Galerita seldom fly but scamper about quickly.  After an hour in the refrigerator slows them down for several minutes there is enough time for taking a portrait.  The insects aren't harmed, escape once they warm up and any goose bumps they have don't show at this magnification.