Saturday, May 30, 2020

Slimy Salamander

Mark Bower sent me these pictures in an email.  "I turned over this piece of wood, looking for slime molds. Instead, there was this slimy salamander. On the under-surface of the wood were these white things, which I assume are salamander eggs?"

Home of a slimy
Now it is perfectly normal for a naturalist to roll over logs looking for salamanders but what kind of man would be looking for a slime mold?  My mother in the 1950s used to say, "There is no accounting for taste, said the woman as she kissed her cow." 

Slimy salamanders (Plethodon albagula) breed annually, depositing about 6-36 eggs under logs or soil in the summer or early fall so it is possible that these are its eggs.  They get their name guessed it, slime.  I can attest to the following statement from the MDC Field Guide.  "This species secretes a thick, very sticky substance that adheres to skin like glue. It causes dust, dirt or bits of dead leaves to stick to one’s hands and is difficult to remove."

I once asked Chris Barnhart this same question about removing tenacious slug slime and he said, "I usually just turn to a colleague and rub his shoulders while giving him a pat on the back."  It has worked for me when out hiking with Mark. 

Slime mold in a rotting log - REK
Back to slime molds, why would Mark look for them?  The answer... why go to an art museum?  Look at Mark's gallery of slime molds and decide for yourself.

Ruth Grant sent this fascinating article on Slime Molds Remember — but Do They Learn?

Friday, May 29, 2020

Hickory Leaf Stem Gall

Holly Welch

We are getting into gall season and Holly Welch sent the picture on the right for identification just as I was writing on one of my favorites, the hickory leaf-stem gall.  They start as smooth swellings along the leaf petiole and occasionally on new shoots.  Initially pale, they later may develop some redness as seen here.  Aside from homeowner concerns, they don't cause any significant damage to the tree.  I find them commonly on young trees where the affected leaves are at eye level.

They are caused by aphids called Phylloxera caryaecaulis and they have a very interesting lifecycle.

Cut open with tiny aphids
"Eggs hatch as new buds open and grow in the early spring. Young aphids crawl to newly expanding foliage where they feed on the new growth by piercing the epidermis and sucking cell sap. The feeding causes the tissue to grow galls which enclose the aphids. Several generations of aphids develop within the galls during May, June, and into July.  If the thought of a hollow gall filled with wiggling little aphid-like creatures grosses you out, you may want to skip this closeup video of the cut open gall above.

Escape opening on the underside of the leaf.

In late July, the galls split open, turn black and jagged in appearance, and the aphids emerge. At this time most of the affected leaves fall prematurely. There are several generations of aphids per year. Eggs are laid in late summer or fall in cracks and crevices of the bark and in old stem galls. Aphids overwinter as eggs in the gall and bark crevices"

Freshly opened gall
I found this newly opened gall that was full of winged aphids.  After filming the inside of the gall I put it in a bug box and returned home.   When I checked the clear plastic box an hour later there were 50+ crawling all over the walls.  When I lifted the lid they all climbed to the top edge, began warming up their wings and then took flight as seen in this video.

Hickory gall "aphid"
You can file this under TMI but although they look like an aphid and walk like an aphid, they technically are not aphids although that term was used in most references.  Aphids are in the superfamily Aphidoidea while our "aphids" are in the Phylloxeroidea superfamily.  Looking at them under magnification they lack the twin tail pipes (cornicles) of an aphid.

Finally, there is an interesting Missouri connection to a closely related species, Phylloxera vitifolia.  It damages European grape vines and came close to wiping out the French wine industry in the 1860's, only to be saved by Missouri grape vine root stock.  Hermann Jaeger was one hero in the story and he influenced a 10 year old named George Washington Carver.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Black Bean Aphids

Black mass on goat's beard - Ben Caruthers
Ben Caruthers captured this dramatic scene while photographing goat's beard, Tragopogon dubius.
"I had tried to catch the flowers open for photos for a couple days, but they close when it is cloudy or when the sun is low in the sky. I just noticed the black on the stalks and noticed the ants crawling gently around the black areas. It was only when I took a macro photo that I was able to see what was happening."
A. fabae - from Wikipedia
Tonya identified the mound of bodies as black bean aphids, Aphis fabaeAccording to Aphidnet it is found in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and in cooler regions of South America, Africa, and the Middle East.  It also has one of the widest appetites and has been reported on almost 120 plant families.  It breeds profusely by live birth and the large numbers attract a large number of predators.  Like many aphids, they produce abundant honeydew. They are commonly farmed by ants which lap up the sweet secretions and protect the aphids from predators.

F. subsericea - Ben Caruthers
The ant is a black mound ant - Formica subsericea, identified for me by James Trager who has written about them in this Antwiki link.  They are known to be enslaved on occasion by several other Formica sp. of ants.  The condition is a form of parasitism called dulosis and in a few cases the slaver ant species is completely helpless without their slaves.

F. subsericea has been studied for its unusual ability to travel across water, at times walking on top and other times swimming by using their front legs for propulsion while steering with their hind legs.  (Gripshover)

Every native plant has a story.  You just have to be curious like Ben and look closer.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Waxwings Flock to Serviceberries

Backyard serviceberry
Thirty years ago Barb had me cut down a Bradford pear that had a major branch broken off.  This is what she remembers about the event.

"This was when Bradford's had a bad reputation only for weak limbs but were known to be sterile and only stayed in places they were planted.  I replaced it with a serviceberry because it was small, wouldn't grow into the power lines, and I enjoyed seeing their blossoms in wooded areas each spring before the dogwoods flowered. The nursery discouraged me by saying it would never survive outside of a forest setting, but by then I really had bonded with the idea."

It has beautiful small white blossoms in the spring, much more refined than the gaudy Bradford/Callery blossoms that are taking over our countryside and even growing out of a neighbor's cedar tree!!  It is also a convenient landing spot for the mockingbirds and other species.

This time of year is when it really earns its keep.  We have flocks of cedar waxwings descending on it, thirty at a time.  The branches will flutter like a big wind storm and the birds gorge on the ripening berries.  Occasionally they will go out on a limb and hang upside down while picking the red ripe juicy fruit.

It is hard to photograph the ripe berry, technically a "pome" but way to technical for me.  By the time the sun is on the tree, so are the waxwings.  They will feast for a while, then suddenly all take off and fly to the very top of a neighboring oak, a spectacular mass exodus.  Now it is safe for the robins and mockingbirds to come back.
"Cedar waxwings like to feast in groups, and they are not alone in loving serviceberries – at least 35 species of birds eat the fruit, including: mockingbirds, robins, catbirds, Baltimore orioles, grosbeaks, thrushes and others."
Unripe berries
The unripe seeds have a subtle flower-like beauty of their own.  The red "petals" are actually withered sepals of the former flower.  When ripe the pomes are red and soft.  Our tree produces fruit with a subtle sweetness and 3-7 tiny soft seeds.  It makes a wonderful Juneberry Jam.

Did someone say desert?

Here is much more detailed information on the downy serviceberry
(Amelanchier arborea)  and cedar waxwings.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Flea Beetles

Flea beetle - Kuschelina gibbitarsa  - 1/5 inch (5mm)
As Barb was talking native plants with a visitor to our backyard, I was patrolling with my camera and saw a little black spot on a pipevine leaf.  Moving in on it I got the picture just before it jumped a foot away into the leaves.  The picture above shows four black spots on the pronotum, the middle two clumped and beautiful metalic green elytra, identifying it as Kuschelina gibbitarsa.

 K. gibbitarsa larva - Nature in the Ozarks CC
This is a leaf beetle in desperate need of a common name as K. gibbitarsa is never going to make it popular on the web.  Jumping is not a typical beetle trait but helps define this as a flea beetle.  They have an enlarged hind leg femora (colored red above) that allows it to spring away like a flea when it is disturbed.  Otherwise it will walk over the leaf like other beetles and is able to fly.

The leaf beetle family (Chrysomelidae) is huge with 37,000 species identified.  You would not want to host a family reunion in your backyard as they are strictly herbivorous both as adults and larvae and have diverse appetites.  They tend to eat small holes in leaves which may coalesce into larger holes.  Some species of larva may also eat the roots.

Pigweed flea beetle, Disonycha glabrata
From our unique human perspective developed over the last 9,000 years of agriculture, they can be a problem.  Some species are unpopular pests when they specialize on a crop plant.  Other species are encouraged when they attack plants we consider bothersome weeds.  Although they have food preferences like us, many can adapt to other plants as needed.

Shining blue star
These and other colorful flea beetles like this pigweed flea beetle on Barb's shining blue star (Amsonia illustris) keep our food web "hopping" - feeding other insects and are welcome additions to our backyard full of native plants.  They support the many species of birds that nest nearby, feeding their families.

Plant native species and bring the food web into your backyard.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Hammer-jawed Jumping Spider

Spider 5 mm or 1/5 of an inch
I found this little critter crawling on the patio floor and was able to scoop it into a bug box.  It measured just short of 5 mm and traveled around with a measured pace, able to walk up on the lid upside down.  When I tapped the box is swung down on a silk safety line....Bingo!  A spider.

Jumping spider eyes-  Nash Turley
I couldn't tell anything more about it until I got some better macro closeups.  The next morning I got it out into sunlight for a better portrait.  Here you can see the prominent forward facing pair of large eyes typical of a jumping spider.  Its palps are relatively large as are the front legs

Jim Eckert on Bugguide
I didn't have a lot of hope but I tried INaturalist and the first pick was a Hammer-jawed Jumping Spider, Zygoballus sp.  I wasn't impressed with the match of their pictures so I entered "Zygoballus" into Bugguide and found the pictures including the one to the right by Jim Eckert which said "Note the dark femurs on the first pair of legs."  BINGO!

You have to love a spider named a Hammer-jawed Jumping Spider!  Common Spiders of North America emphasizes the dark front leg femur as an identifying feature.  They are usually found in grasslands with small shrubs which describes our back yard which Barb had converted to all native species.

For those who haven't used INaturalist, it isn't perfect but then a Barb reminds me frequently, neither am I.  It is a good place to start if you haven't any idea what you have photographed.  It does require a good picture so cropping shots and color correction as needed is a good idea.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Bees on a Waterleaf

Walking along the Mail Trace road, it would be easy to miss the tiny pale blue flowers mixed in with grass and small seedlings.  Then you start to notice the bees that are clinging on them, swinging from side to side, slurping every last bit of nectar before moving to the next blossom.  It is hard work, hanging upside down but its all in a days work for these European honey bees, Apis mellifera.

Looking closely at the dusty pollen on the bee's body is a good example of how pollination works.  It also makes me want to sneeze!


They are working on the tiny water leaf flowers.  They are named for the pale stains on the leaves that appear later in the season. 

With a little magnification I can see how deep the bee has to plunge to get to the nectar.  After a vigorous workout, I examined the blossoms and could find no evidence the bee had been there.  These are tough little flowers.

Hairy stems of woolen breeches - Click to enlarge

There are two common Hydrophyllum species along our road.  Virginia water leaf (H. virginiana) is smooth stemmed while these are quite hairy, a defining characteristic of H. appendiculatum.  Fortunately it has the common name of Woolen Breeches which is a good way to identify it and also avoid having to pronounce its proper Latin name.

As usual,  the MDC Discover Nature Field Guide had good concise information on woolen breeches.  More detailed information is at Illinois Wildflowers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Newborn Fawn

I was waiting for a Dan Lyons at our gate when I saw a doe with two tiny fawns way up our gravel road.  I watched it for 3 minutes and took these pictures at 42x zoom.  The fawns were awkward, looking like a couple of drunks.

I waited a while and watched one fawn go across the road to the right and disappear from sight.  The doe made several bleat calls and looked across the road but finally disappeared into the woods on the left, followed by the second fawn.  I finally had to drive up the road.  I stopped at the neighbor's gate and walked along the fence line looking for the fawn without any luck.  When I walked back to the truck I nearly stepped on it.

Can you spot the fawn?
Click to enlarge
"Spotted" is the word.  The camouflage is surprisingly good and the fawn didn't move or even blink as I took several photographs.  It was still there 30 minutes later when we drove back home.  I have no doubt mama will be back for her baby and I bet it gets a good licking for not following orders.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Rust Fungus

Tonya Smith posted this picture of a fungus on a violet leaf.  I asked Mark Bower to educate me as my knowledge of these fungi is a bit rusty.  Sorry....but not really.
"Rust fungi are highly specialized obligate parasites on plants. There are at least 7,000 species known, and most are in the order Pucciniales, one of the largest orders of the fungal kingdom.  They are call rusts because many of them are orange colored, although they can be black, brown, yellow or red.

Rust fungi have complex life cycles, frequently including up to five spore stages and two different alternating plant hosts.  They are responsible for a variety of diseases of agricultural crops. They are important pathogens of cereals, legumes, fruit trees, coffee plants and many others."  Mark Bower
Puccinia violae on a violet
Tonya said, "That photo is deceiving. The square stem is a different plant. The rust I found was on violet leaves."

Tonya's rust above is Puccinia violae, a violet specialist.  Like mosquitoes, rusts don't get much respect in online resources but there are photos of their life stages at Discoverlife.  Viewed up close, it has its own special beauty.

Cedar apple rust
The most dramatic example of rusts in the Ozarks is the cedar apple rust, Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae, which causes orange, gelatinous growths on eastern red cedars. To complete its life cycle this fungus requires an alternate host such as an apple, service berry, hawthorn or pear tree. It "fruits" after rain before shrinking into a brown hard lump.This isn't a serious problem unless you have an orchard and affects your fruit.

Cedar quince rust
Cedar quince rust is caused by Gymnosporangium clavipes.   It spreads along the branches resembling witch's butter fungus.  Aside from a bright orange to brighten up an overcast day after a rain, it doesn't have beauty to recommend it.  It affects a much wider variety of plants in the rose family, 480 species at last count.  More on G. clavipes in this blog.

Mayapple rust
Another common but hidden rust is Mayapple Rust, caused by Allodus podiphylli.  It occurs on the underside of the leaf but a small tan dimple on top can help you find it without looking under every plant.  Mayapples are a very interesting subject that we covered in this 2015 blog.  More details about this rust is here.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Good Termites?

Rolling over rotting logs in the forest (no not terminal Covid boredom but a long term habit) one fell apart in pieces and I found hundreds of these winged insects.  They didn't attempt to fly, just scrambled into the rotten wood like ants would when disturbed.  That lead to an email to the ever patient Dr. James Trager.  His response:
"Alate termites. No worries, they're Subterranean Termites - Reticulotermes flavipes, very common throughout eastern temperate North America, not interested in sound wood or in any wood that is not in contact with soil."

When I think of termites, I envision the white to pale yellow-orange creatures in rotting wood structures.  I wasn't thinking of black ant like critters with long wings.  Although it resembles an ant, termites belong to the Blattodea family, related to cockroaches.  Alate refers to the reproductive caste from a social insect colony in its winged form.
"In a termite colony, alates (winged males and winged females) disperse in a specific period or a month. Male and female pair to each other during flight, shed their wings, and start a new colony. Alate females are typically those destined to become gynes (queens), whereas alate males are occasionally referred to as "drones" (or "kings" in the case of termites.)"  Wikipedia
The University of Florida Entomology web site has more that we need to know about Reticulotermes flavipes and the genus in generalThey live in subterranean nests and are a problem when the wood of a house is in direct contact with the soil.  
“Everyone in life has a purpose, even if it's to serve as a bad example.” -Carroll Bryant
So back to the basic question that the 5th grade WOLF students (and most adults) ask, "What good are termites, ... mosquitoes, flies, spiders, etc?"    Termites are food for ants, spiders, birds, beetles, praying mantis, and even bears!  They recycle logs on the ground - consider how many miles deep our forest floor would be with dead logs without recyclers!

Ask a black bear about termites and it will say "baby food and desert."  Insect larvae are 80-90% protein (vs. less than 30% for beef) so it is highly ranked on the summer menu.  It is a special delicacy for cubs eating their first solid foods.

Black bears dig up ant and termite colonies, drawn to the odor of ants' defensive formic acid. They attempt to eat the brood cleanly without getting a lot of soil, debris, and adult ants. They do this most easily with colonies under rocks, moss, and ground litter. They flip over the rocks or other cover and get the brood with a few flicks of their sticky tongues.

Termites only got their bad reputation when bipedal apes developed language, tools and eventually wood structures to live in.  After millions of year of coexistence with our world, a termite might ask "What good are humans?"

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Aphid Wasp

Today my wife and editor found this creature crawling on the inside of the patio door while moving her house plants outside.  Like the trained naturalist she is, she captured it in a bug box and delivered it to me.  Here is her story.
"My plants were in a sorry shape.  Some of them had scale insects and mealybugs. Sweet sticky juice was on the floor under them. Just the sort of thing other insects might love. I'm used to seeing spiders but this was a flying insect with a thread waist. Having no bug box with me, but very curious about what it was, I pinched it between my thumb and pointer finger until I could find a box. I was surprised that it had very hard body."

Barb's wasp
Measuring 11mm, I didn't expect to have much luck identifying it beyond a wasp.  Inaturalist suggested it was an aphid wasp in the tribe Psenini.  These are typically black wasps characterized by an exceedingly slender petiole connecting the thorax and abdomen.  In frontal views it had a square silvery pattern that looked like the grill on a Rolls Royce.

 - Marci Hess CC
Searching for Psenini in Bugguide I came up with photographs of a Pseneo sp. with the identical facial features.   This was closer to an identification that I had dared to hope for.  Marci Hess has this photograph on Bugguide which shows it much better.  It appears to be frowning, probably from the bright light.  Her photograph below has a much better view of the slender petiole.

Barb's wasp
Aphid wasps are members of the subfamily Pemphredoninae.  They capture aphids and take them back to their nest cells.  There they will lay paralyzed, waiting for the wasp larva to emerge and consume it, staying fresh without refrigeration.  In another wasp family, the Aphidius sp. lays a single egg in an aphid.  Its venom stuns the aphid's ovaries, saving its energy for the emerging wasp larva.

Quite a story from catching a little insect on the glass.  I married the right woman.