Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Pinwheels on the Forest Floor

I borrowed this photograph from our WOLF school teacher Courtney Reece and used it in a class session on photographing nature.  It serves as a great example of what can be done with a cell phone and and a little patience.  The sharp images of the mushrooms while keeping the background out of focus is a lesson on its own.

A second lesson we stress with the students is to notice the where and what, in this case where was it found and what was it on.  This is Marasmius capillaris and it grows on oak leaves matting the forest floor. Michael Kuo points out that it is often mistaken for the better known Marasmius rotul but that species grows on wood rather than leaves.  He goes on to say:

"After summer rains in eastern North America's oak-hickory forests, Marasmius capillaris can often be seen fruiting by the thousands, like tiny white flowers blanketing the litter layer. Close inspection of the same leaves during dry spells often reveals that the little mushrooms are still there, shriveled up until they are literally pin-sized, waiting for more rain and the chance to come back to life and distribute spores once again."   Michael Kuo 

This is a potential science experiment which could excite a student or even an aging naturalist, a chance to bring the mushrooms back to life.  Another source says M. capillaris is in the same family as shitake mushrooms "but may or may not be edible."  I can't imagine trying to eat something this small but this is not an experiment that anyone should try, ever! 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Barred Owl Nest

Watching a bird nest over a season is a thrill, especially when it is a raptor.  Jeff Grayless shared this experience with us in these photographs of barred owls.  The nest was 40 feet above the ground on one side of a narrow ravine, a straight camera shot at eye level from the other side.

Out of the nest

Jeff got to watch the chicks develop and fledge.  The lighter colored one hung out by the nest opening while the darker on was more shy, hanging back.  The parents would fly in with supper, frequently, a feathered Grubhub.  He got the see one parent fly in with a mouse in its beak.  You can get  a glimpse of their family life in Jeff's video here on this video.

Watching the chicks as they fledged must have been a real treat and is an opportunity for citizen science.*   According to All About Birds "Young Barred Owls can climb trees by grasping the bark with their bill and talons, flapping their wings and walking their way up the trunk."

The shy one

We hear their hooting call, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” regularly in the evening along Bull Creek where the sound carries far in the valley.  We will frequently hear two or three calling back and forth.  Even my crude attempt at calling back will frequently start a longer conversation with one in the distance.

These are crepuscular and nocturnal hunters, watching from a perch or gliding silently over  the fields and forest floor.  Silently is not an exaggeration as seen in this video  of the flight of a barn owl.  Special features of their wings and feathers are explained here.

Barred owls eat a wide variety of animals, mostly small rodents and squirrels but also will take occasional birds, frogs, salamanders, snakes, lizards, and even occasional insects.  The oldest known barred owl specimen was over 24 years old.  They do not migrate and tend to spend their life within a 6 mile radius in most cases.  The next generation should be calling soon.


*Cornell Ornithology Lab has a Nest Watch program for citizen scientists who observe and record data.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Camphorweed Cat

Rusty Hathcock went on a hike on Saturday with other Missouri Prairie Foundation members to L-A-D Foundation pines near Round Creek and saw the caterpillar above. He identified it as camphorweed cucullia, Cucullia alfarata, aka white-streaked prominent. It later becomes the drab moth seen below.  It is interesting how often a young lepidoptera is much more attractive than the adult form.  (Hmmmm, looking at my high school graduation photo to compared to present, I.........)

Adult moth - Seth Ausubel

Camphorweed - USDA
This caterpillar feeds on the flowerheads of camphorweed, Pluchea camphorata, a weedy plant in the aster family, Asteraceae.  It tends to grow in moist or boggy soil, another Rodney Dangerfield plant that gets no respect in online plant circles.  Most available photographs of the flower head aren't particularly attractive but add a caterpillar below and they can be beautiful.  (Just like adding my wife to my photograph.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Flower on a Rock

While seining for Dobsonfly larvae, AKA hellgrammites, at a little rapids at our creek crossing, we saw these tiny flowers growing up to 5" tall, clinging to a bare rock that is always moist from the splashing water.  The rock is spray painted red to indicate a safe level to cross, but even that didn't dissuade this hearty little pioneer.  Based on my extensive botanical training and experience (=0) and a quick visit to INaturalist I identified it as seaside brookweed, Samolus valerand.

Fruit and flower- click to enlarge

It is found across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. There are a number of other common names including brookweed, thin-leaf brookweed, water cabbage, and water rose.  The delicate little flowers have 5 white lobes and can occur spring through fall.  Its fruits are capsules that are green and globular as seen here.

"Its inflorescence is a raceme, with small white flowers on long stalks." Wikipedia

Raceme flowers - Click to enlarge








For non-botanists, like me, Oxford dictionary describes raceme as "a flower cluster with the separate flowers attached by short equal stalks at equal distances along a central stem. The flowers at the base of the central stem develop first."  You can see this better here.

Occasional sources list it as edible when young and tender, turning bitter with age like some of us.

To me, the wonder was that it could grow on a damp rock with just moss for comfort and no soil.  It can grow up to 13" tall.  Again from Wikipedia,  "This species is found in a variety of wet habitats, including stream banks, tidal marshes, and seeps. It can be found in both degraded and intact natural communities."  This is one tough cookie!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Burying the Beetles

MDC News Release, September 14, 2020

"The American burying beetle, reintroduced at two southwest Missouri prairies, has been down listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from endangered to threatened on the nation’s endangered species list. "  MDC News Release

Back in 2013, several of us were involved in a project to restore the endangered American Burying Beetle which had been extirpated in 28 states of its native range.  This week we have been notified of the projects success in this news release.  In these trying times, we need all the good news we can get.  Below the photograph is the 2013 blog that describes what MDC and some MN volunteers were doing in this exciting ongoing project.

USFWS photo of American Burying Beetle


 What excites a Master Naturalist?  Holding an endangered species in your hand ranks high, and it is even better if you are doing something to help them survive.  We had the opportunity to participate in the restoration of American burying beetles (ABB) last Tuesday. 

The American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) (ABB) originally was present in 35 states.  Now it is only found in seven states and efforts are underway in several states to restore it to its native habitat.  The St. Louis Zoo's Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation has a breeding program and is actively involved in restoration efforts with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation.  Master Naturalists were invited to join the work day at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie just north of Eldorado Springs.

The burying or sexton beetles, genus Nicrophorus, are a colorful group, shiny black with bright orange spots in patterns which identify the species.  Our ABB, N. americanus is distinguished from the other burying beetles by coloration and size.  It is the only one with an orange spot on the upper surface of its pronotum (first segment of the thorax).  It is also considerably larger that the other common burying beetles.

N. Orbicollis - Note black pronotum


The burying beetles are one of only a few groups of insects that personally nurture their young, feeding them much like a bird does.  In their case, a vulture might be a more appropriate model, as they eat a dead mammal or bird, then regurgitate it into the mouths of their emerging larvae.  Before a pair can mate they must first find a dead animal, flying up to two miles while sniffing the air with their antennae.  Just like Goldilocks, it has to be just the right size. Too big and they can't move and bury it, too small and they will run out of food. 

Mighty mites- Aussie Botanist
The Nicrophorus beetles don't do it alone.  They carry mites along, predominately on the under side of the thorax and abdomen.  Once they arrive at the animal, the mites disembark and begin eating fly eggs, larvae and other competition for the body.  Mites - don't leave home without them!  Meanwhile the beetles trim off the beak, feet and feathers or unwanted parts and bury the carcass swiftly.  Lacking refrigeration, they coat the carcass with a substance that fights off bacteria and fungus.

Click to enlarge

Why has the ABB, N. Americanus been disappearing while other Nicrophorus species have remained stable?  No one knows although there is no lack of theories.  Some include the usual suspects, habitat fragmentation and pesticide use.  The ubiquitous artificial lights may be a factor, as these beetles only fly at night, awaiting total darkness.  Another problem is finding just the right sized dead body to bury.  The loss of passenger pigeons may have eliminated a major food source of the right size, as would the loss of quail habitat. 

The St. Louis Zoo's Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation has an extensive program which propagates beetles, each individually identified by parents, generation, etc. The eventual goal is to reintroduce them into the wild and hopefully reestablish breeding self-sustaining populations.  Now it is time to get down and dirty.

Ben and friend
So how do we get the endangered American Burying Beetle (ABB) back into the wild?  By burying them!  You may remember we mentioned the importance of having a dead animal of the right size.  This is where the quail comes in.   Our job was to bury a mating (we hope) pair of ABB with a nice fresh...well more like slightly stinky... farm raised quail carcass.  Phew to us but home cooking to the beetle.  Ben Alleger, our young team member with experience in reintroducing ABB last year will lead us through the project in pictures.

We formed up in three teams, each headed by a member of the St. Louis Zoo team.  Each team would be responsible for 100 beetle pairs, each separately boxed and banded together.  Our leader gave out detailed, explicit instructions repeatedly, preventing any mistakes.  After all, these are federally endangered species and none of us wanted to end up in the pen!  Each step included another of his inspections, like a kinder and gentler drill sergeant without the expletives. 

Hole with quail in side chamber
The first task was digging 100 holes, evenly spaced along a straight line.  The hole had to be the right size and depth with a carefully removed lid of prairie turf, to be replaced when we were done.  Next a side chamber was dug out of the hole, all pointing to the same side so they could be found later.  (Editor's note- no volunteers were injured in this project)

Now came the fun- sort of.  A ripe quail was placed in each side chamber, being careful that it didn't stick out into the main hole.  We had to wear rubber gloves to handle the beetles.  Packing in the dead quail ensured that no one complained about wearing the gloves.
Male and female- separate quarters

For our burying project the beetles each had a pedigree and were carefully paired up, making sure that they were from separate families, no cousins or siblings allowed.  They were packaged in a pair of separate boxes.  They won't meet until the last minute when they get together on the quail, the ultimate of a blind date hookup.

The highlight was placing the beetles in the hole.  After determining that each pair was alive, we put them individually in the hole, herding them into the side chamber with the quail.  It is important to be sure that none of the valuable critters escapes for they have work to do.

Placing the beetles in their chambers, one at a time.
Release into the chamber

Aside from one which, after smelling the quail, was apparently considering becoming a vegetarian, they all scurried into the side chamber without encouragement, never to be seen again.  We were told that they might make audible squeaks as they mate, something that can take place almost immediately.  Since this was a family venture with pure of heart and mind MDC folks, we didn't watch.  What happens in quail chambers, stays in the chambers.

ABB male climbing over the quail into the chamber, looking for love.
Replacing the turf lid

Now back to work.  As soon as they were in the side chamber, we put the lid of turf back over the hole, using loose dirt to fill in the edges.  Once that was complete for 100 holes, we stretched chicken wire over the strip and tacked it down tight to prevent  marauding mammals from digging out the quail.

With three teams, we buried 302 pair of ABB in three separate plots.  Now it is up to the beetles.  What happens next is described on the St. Louis Zoo website.

"Pairs bury the carrion cooperatively. The female beetle lays her eggs near the preserved carcass. Within four days, the eggs hatch into larvae. Both parents feed their offspring by eating some of the dead flesh and regurgitating it into the larvae's mouths. This goes on for about 6 to 12 days, until the larvae begin their next stage of development, pupation. After 45 to 60 days, the new generation of beetles emerges from the carcass cavity. This process is repeated during the beetles’ one-year life span."
ABB Larvae- St. Louis Zoo
In ten days, the St. Louis Zoo team will return and assess one-third of the holes, carefully opening them to see if the larvae are present.  By this time they should be functioning and the male may have all ready escaped.  After last year's project, 1/3 of the beetle pairs were checked and found to have produced 395 offspring.  Future assessments will include looking for new adults on the prairie.  They have already seen one adult beetle from last year's class. 

The beetles we released have been notched, that is, marked by notching the elytra, the hard, modified forewings that encase the thin hind wings used in flight. The notch distinguishes captive-bred and wild beetles, and beetles are notched based on release location.

Rectangular notch on  right tip
If you look closely at the back tip of the elytra of the beetle on the right, you will see a tiny rectangular notch cut out.  This allows the team to determine if it is one we put in the ground or a member of the next graduating class.

More information on the project is at the St. Louis Zoo website.  A slide show from last year's reintroduction is here.

Team 2- we happy few   Click to enlarge

Details on the ABB release program are in this St. Louis Zoo PDF

Friday, September 11, 2020

Wasp Mating Ball


We normally see the northern paper wasps, Polistes fuscatus, come and go through a crack in our eaves but the sight above was very impressive.  A tight scrum of wasps four deep were crawling all over each other, mostly males.  None were flying around and there were more hanging around the edges as if thinking about joining in. You can watch the action on this Youtube video.

I suspected that it was a wasp orgy and sent it to an expert (on wasps, not orgy's), Chris Barnhart.  He confirmed that it was a mating scrum and sent this link which described this behavior in Polistes gallicus.  They write:

"At the end of summer, males of Polistes gallicus fly in swarms around vertical landmarks and land in clusters on their favorite perches, where they drag their legs and abdomen. Here males occasionally crowd around a perched female; they make no effort to defend an exclusive mating territory but instead attempt to copulate by displacing rivals from the female."

 Another source from NC State adds more details.  

"Paper wasps show types of swarming behavior during the cool and cold times of the year when there are no nests and no young larvae to protect. During the fall, this behavior is connected with mating and is the wasp version of "boy meets girl." 

Male wasps look for the best place to "hang out" and attract females. On these warm days during the fall, the future queens become active and fly about.  They go on to say that the females tend to seek high spots like towers or the highest house in a neighborhood (like ours on a bluff).  Males seek out good spots and emit hormones (pheromones) to attract females.  That is likely what all the bumping and grinding of abdomens is about in the video.

Ordinarily I spray for them when they are tending the nest as they become defensive and sting occasionally when we walk around.  They will patrol the deck but don't usually sting seated guests unless someone instinctively swats at them.  The books say that at this stage they aren't aggressive but I am not sure how many wasps read books.

Since these were six feet from our front door and within reach of anyone passing by, I sprayed them, then counted 42 bodies with more dropping through the gaps in the deck.  While they are a part of nature and considered "beneficial," I don't think I upset the balance of nature too far and I am confident that they will be nesting here next year.

There is more on Polistes fuscatus in Wikipedia.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Sycamore Tussock Moth

My five year old associate named River found this moth above crawling on his shirt.  He reluctantly let me have it in the name of science and we identified it as a sycamore tussock moth, Halysidota harrisii.  We see the moth frequently by our deck light but this was the first larva I had seen.  Its four orange tufts of hairs are called pencils and are quite distinctive.  In addition to the crew cut hairs along the back you can see small tufts of hairs along the side.  These look like the urticating hairs of some of the stinging caterpillars we discussed here, but there are only a few reports of sensitivity and most sources say they don't sting.

River had been swimming in our creek which is lined with sycamores.  These caterpillars are frequently found swinging on a thread of silk close to the ground.  It is likely that he walked into at thread and picked up a hitchhiker.  Fortunately this one was harmless.

Cocoon after emergence
The tiny caterpillar will grow for 30-40 days, filling out its skin until it splits out wearing a larger new skin to grow into.  After doing this four times it will form a rather hairy cocoon in which it will transform over two weeks into the adult moth, unless winter sets in and it waits until spring to emerge. 
The moth is a beauty with a turquoise dyed stripe on the edges of orange, a pattern a modern teenager might envy.  I had previously identified it as a banded tussock moth, Halysidota tessellaris, but according to these two species are identical in appearance and can only be separated by careful anatomical examination.  Therefore you can't prove me wrong.

With this important addition to natural science, I hope that River can forgive me for taking his caterpillar.


Wheel Bugs

The racy photograph above of two mating wheel bugs was posted by Jessie Haworth to our Facebook page.  This seems like a good opportunity to revisit a 2010 post on this assassin bug member that looks like it crawled out of a science fiction movie.

The above adult wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) is easily identified by the gear-like armor on its back.  Like all true bugs the mouth parts (mandible, maxilla and labium or lips) have evolved into a piercing beak, called a rostrum or proboscis. It carries it tucked up below its thorax until swinging it out to stab into an unfortunate prey.  Unlike the Tiny Biter in the last blog, this bug can put a real hurt on you with severe pain followed by numbness for several days.

Many other true bugs, (Hemiptera for you Latin speakers), such as cicadas, aphids, planthoppers, leafhoppers, and shield or stink bugs use their beaks to suck plant juices.  Predatory species are equipped with specialized tools to inject their enzymes into their prey like an external stomach, then sucking in the predigested meal.  The mandible of some have tooth beaks (stylets) to cut into prey as well.

Assassin bugs have strong front legs which tightly grasp their prey as they stab their beak into it and inject digestive juices.  After these have done their work they are able to suck out their dinner like a high protein milkshake.  Most other insects which use this external digestion process have two tubes, one to inject and one to suck out the contents.  Reduviidae have just one large tube to inject and then slurp up the feast.

Empty egg case - Tonya Smith
Wheel bugs are a member of the Reduviidae family, aka assassin bugs.  They are mostly patient ambush hunters, waiting for an opportunity rather than chasing down prey.  Reduviidae go through an incomplete metamorphosis in which the first nymph (instar) that emerges from the egg has a resemblance to the eventual adult it will become.  The first instar of the wheel bug has a bright red back (picture from Bugguide) which is quite distinctive while the latter instar (pictured above) shows graying much like we humans.  

Assassin bug larva - Patrick Coin

The final stage of adulthood bring them their wings and sex organs.  This is similar to withholding the driving permit from a teenager as their hormones hit high gear.
Wheel bugs tend to move in a jerky motion, and their brief flights produce a loud buzzing sound.  They may bite humans who handle them, an extremely painful experience producing an open sore that can take months to heal.  If that isn't enough to dissuade you from picking one up, their "bad gas" problem may be.  They have two orange glands beside the anus that eject a foul scent when they are disturbed.

To start using "Reduviidae" in conversations with friends, go to

Friday, September 4, 2020

Tiny Biters

Proboscis inserted in my arm

Barb and I were sitting on the deck reading when I noticed little tiny sharp bites with no insects to account for them.  Finally I had one on my forearm where I could see a tiny dark spot.  I set my camera on macro, zoomed in tight.....and it flew off.  Soon another landed and when I felt the bite I got the picture.  A glutton for punishment, I waited and three minutes later I got another bite.  This was my lucky day!

I was sure that INaturalist wouldn't be able to make out the fuzzy photo above but I hit pay dirt the first try.  It is the insidious flower bug (IFB) - Orius insidiosus. It is also called a minute pirate bug.  I photographed one on the porch swing and then measured the orange weave which is barely 2mm.  In all three photographs you can see its long proboscis. "The better to bite you with, my dear."

Wikipedia says: "Orius insidiosus occasionally bites humans. Although the bite can be considered disproportionately painful relative to the size of this species, it is not harmful."  Although annoying, and leaving a little red mark after a thirty second bite, I would say if ranked pound for pound it would exceed any wasp.

Dinner time - USDA

IFB are generalist predators primarily feeding on caterpillars, soft bodied arthropods and insect eggs, occasionally sweetened up with a little bite of nectar.  They are valuable in some agricultural settings and are available commercially in bulk.  We aren't buying any this year.

 More details are at