Thursday, 20 December 2012

December's Centipede

Ohio's had a warm December so far, and I have only seen a few snowflakes here in southeast Ohio. This week has been moderately warm, with temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s (Fahrenheit, that is). We've had a few cold snaps, so I've pretty much stopped looking for any arthropods, except for lady beetles and marmorated stink bugs in my home.

Then I went outside to retrieve the mail today. I spotted something moving on the porch and took a closer look: it was a centipede! I ran inside to retrieve a vial, almost falling in the hallway due to my wet shoes (it rained today) and frightening the cat, which ran into the living room. I apologized and ran back outside, just in time to catch the critter before it left the porch and disappeared into the yard.

I took it back inside and examined it: it was one of the largest centipedes we have in Ohio, Scolopocryptops sexspinosus. It's in the family Scolopocryptopidae and only has 23 legs--not 100 (no centipede has 100 legs, despite the common name for the group). Normally this centipede is found under logs or rocks, so I was surprised to see it crawling around. Perhaps the soggy ground sent it searching for a drier place?


This centipede is a whopping 2.5 inches long, which is intimidating the first time you see it. It does have venomous fangs (which are actually modified legs!), so be wary of picking it up. Its bite isn't life threatening, but it probably won't feel very nice either. There is a similar species, S. nigridius, that occurs in the eastern US, but it's less common than S. sexspinosus. S. nigridius is reported to be darker with a bluish hue, though I've yet to find a specimen myself.

This individual is currently settling into its new home--one of my insect cages. I'll nab a few more photos and then decide what to do with it afterward. One of the things I've noticed while keeping it is its response to light. It has ocelli (small eyes that detect light and dark) on the sides of its head, and whenever it senses light, it scampers away and tries to burrow under anything nearby. This reveals another of its traits: speed. This species (like most centipedes) is fast. It's like a cheetah with a lot of legs.

So how do you know when you have this species? If you're in the eastern US, your centipede has 23 legs (putting it in the family Scolopocryptopidae), is bright orange and usually 2 or 3 inches in length, then you've got yourself a Scolopocryptops sexspinosus.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Entomology Art - ESA 2012

I'm a member of the Entomological Society of America and they had their annual meeting last month. In anticipation of the meeting, they sent out reminder postcards to everyone, urging people to register. I had other things going on and couldn't attend, but the postcard was too cool not to share.


That's just a scanned copy, so the colors don't pop like they do on the actual postcard. But it turns out that the ESA has a poster version of this card! They printed 200 and you can order one here while they're available. I may just end up hanging my postcard on the wall instead of ordering the poster, but it's nice to see insect art. It's a good reminder that the arts and sciences aren't diametrically opposed.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Old Entomological texts are the best

Seriously. I'm not sure if it's just because I'm reading papers published a hundred years and the context of the written text is different from what I'm used to today or what, but there are so many great paragraphs hidden away in yellowing papers that are now digitized. A great resource for these papers is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a cooperative effort by libraries to digitize biodiversity records and make them available online--for free.

It has great search features and has provided me with a lot of great information that I wasn't able to find anywhere else. It's also a nice resource for finding beautiful old pictures of plants and animals, which led me to search it today for a picture of the wheel bug. Instead, I happened upon a page from a circular released by the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Entomology in 1904.

Instead of finding info about the wheel bug, I found a paragraph written by someone who did not like ambush bugs:
"A small, evil-smelling plant-bug, Phymata wolffii Tal. (fig. 6), secretes itself in flowers, such as thistle and goldenrod, and destroys numbers of the butterflies, capturing them and sucking out their vital fluids."
You just don't get that kind of bluntness nowadays; it's refreshing. The butterflies the circular is referring to are individuals of the imported Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae), if you were wondering.

For your viewing pleasure, figure 6 is below. Keep in mind that this little ambush bug is only about half an inch long.


Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Golden Wheel Bug

Every so often, animals can be a different color than what they normally are. The most recognizable case is animals that have albinism or leucism. At other times, you may even see a pink katydid.

Recently, my girlfriend came across a dead wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) on a sidewalk and noticed it wasn't quite the dusty gray that most wheel bugs are. It was much more vivid: its wings had a golden shimmer to them.


While the lighting isn't optimal, you can see the golden color pretty well. Compared to the normal color of a wheel bug, it's a noticeable difference.


I'll try to get a picture of two pinned wheel bugs side by side for a better comparison and will update this post soon. Isn't it neat? You never know what nature will throw at you.

Monday, 10 December 2012

"Why do you collect insects?"

That's a good question, and whenever I'm asked that I usually get a shocked look as I explain how I collect insects and the process of killing them. To entomologists, it's not such a big deal, especially if you've been collecting insects for a while, but the general public might see it as a hypocritical approach: if entomologists love these bugs they're collecting, why are they killing them rather than letting them live?

I always strive to explain that I collect for a purpose and do my best not to let my collected specimens go to waste by giving them a label and properly processing them, but it can be tough to get the point across.

Thankfully, Greg Pohl, the president of the Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild, has written a letter that stands as the best defense of insect collection I've read. It's a thorough and very informative piece, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

Personally, using insect collections as teaching tools has been the most successful use for collections that I've found. It's how I became interested in insects, and it's how I've gotten others interested in insects--from middle schoolers to adults.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Grad School Preparations

I am now preparing to apply to grad schools. I've been working on nailing down exactly what I want to do over the past few months, and what schools would allow me to reach my goals, and I'm finally at the point where I can seriously start the application process.

Canada, Ohio, Arkansas, Arizona, and Illinois are looking to be strong contenders.

I would like to incorporate millipede research into my graduate work, but that isn't a make or break thing. I would like to stay within the field of systematics or ecology, though that's not set in stone either if I find a really neat project.

My final goal is still to work in a natural history museum so that I can merge research with science outreach, and we'll see how I get there--or if I find something else along the way.

A huge thanks goes out to people like Crystal Ernst, Morgan Jackson, and Chris Buddle for giving me support thus far in my journey, and for sharing their experiences and knowledge.

And of course, the Biology Department at Marietta College has a great set of faculty that have been supporting me and my adventures in biology for the past five years now. I definitely wouldn't have made it this far without them.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

More Caterpillar Parasitoidism

I'm finding interesting insects as I go back through my collection vials and inserting the final labels. The vials include a bunch of organisms I've collected over the years, and one in particular I just processed brought back some memories.


This is a pretty caterpillar called Leucostigma orgyia, more commonly known as the white-marked tussock moth. I picked it off a tree during the summer of 2010 and took it home to raise into a beautiful moth, as this was around the time my interest in insects was really starting to increase.

Things didn't quite go as planned.


My caterpillar friend had been parasitized! As I came to learn later, this is a pretty common occurrence, but this was the first time I had witnessed it. I cover parasitoidism in this post, but the short version is that a small wasp (in the family Braconidae) had found this caterpillar and injected some eggs into it, which later hatched and found on the insides of the caterpillar. Once the wasp larvae had their fill, they burst out of the caterpillar's body, as you can see in the above picture.

The larvae then spin their cocoons on the caterpillar's body (the caterpillar is alive for part of this process), and after a few weeks, they emerge as adults and fly away. It can be gruesome to watch, especially considering how many wasps emerged: more than 50 in this case.



The above picture shows one of the adult males, magnified under a microscope. In their normal life cycle, they would fly off in search of females to mate with to restart the cycle anew. A bit violent, but it's a great population control mechanism.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Mushroom & Millipede Hunting

Yesterday was a nice day outside, and I figured it would probably be one of the last before the snow started falling. I decided to take advantage of this, and set off to find some mushrooms. (Also, it was snowing when I woke up this morning, so I was correct in my assumption. Maybe I should take up weather forecasting.)

I packed some collecting supplies and set off for the nature trail near my old elementary school. It has a nice array of habitat types and gratuitous amounts of decaying logs, so I was optimistic that I would find some nice mushrooms. However, almost immediately after I stepped onto the trail, my trip turned into millipede hunting. It's just too difficult to resist turning over every decaying log I find in hopes of getting some millipedes out of it.

My habit ended up paying off: I found many millipedes and collected 7 specimens from 4 separate species. It's astounding how many little critters live in decaying wood and the surrounding leaf litter. It's a miniature rain forest in there, but is often overlooked. It's really quite easy to collect arthropods using leaf litter: take a few fistfuls of leaf litter and maybe a little dirt, stuff it into a plastic bag, and later transfer it into a funnel. Put a light bulb above the funnel and a jar with some alcohol underneath the funnel, and give it a few days. All the arthropods will dig down through the leaves and fall into the jar. Put your catch underneath the microscope and you'll see all kinds of spiders, pseudoscorpions, harvestmen, millipedes, insects, mites, and so much more.

Though my excursion focused on millipedes, I did eventually incorporate fungi as well.

Another mysterious fungus, along with a millipede.

I rooted through the leaf litter near a dead log and turned over this old piece of bark. The fungus caught my eye long enough to distract me from the millipede (which I did catch later). It reminded me of another fungus I saw a few summers ago and blogged about here. I'm still at a loss for what they could be and need to find a good resource on fungi to research it more. I poked one of the drops and it ran onto the wood, into which it was readily absorbed.

The millipede ran surprisingly quickly, as they're usually slow. It didn't try to curl into a spiral when I picked it up, but rather thrashed around a bit instead. This is atypical for millipedes, which was intriguing. I think it's a Chordeumatid in the genus Cleidona, but I'll need to get it under a microscope and look at a few features before I can be sure.

The other millipedes I found were much more millipede-like in their habits. The most abundant millipede I found was a Polydesmid that I've found a few other times, but have yet to identify. 

Crawling around its new home, a nice plastic container I prepared.

It looks similar to another millipede I've seen before, Pseudopolydesmus serratus, though it doesn't fluoresce under UV light. I grabbed three specimens, and one is a male, so I should be able to figure it out.


After turning over enough decaying logs, I've learned which millipedes I can expect to see more often than not. And like usual, the beautiful Euryurus leachii, showed up under the logs I looked at.


This millipede is a little over an inch long and is easy to recognize. It has a blunt epiproct (its "tail"), separating it from other Polydesmids. The orange spots along its back and at the edges of its paranota, combined with the purplish hue of its body, readily identify this native millipede. It's certainly in the running for most beautiful millipede in Ohio. Once you cross into the central US, however, be careful: Auturus evides is a lookalike. I haven't seen a specimen of A. evides for myself, so I'm not yet sure how to differentiate them.

Another reason for E. leachii's beauty: its fluorescence under UV light.

Not to be outdone by all these amazing millipedes, the fungi made a comeback somewhere around the Soggy Bottom Trail.

It's usually much soggier. 

Decaying wood isn't only for millipedes, it's also great habitat for moss and mushrooms!


Those little brown mushrooms made a cute little home in a hole in the log, flanked by moss. If you look closely at the stalks coming up from the moss, you can see the calyptra (the green sheath) around the spore capsule. Think of the calyptra as a protective blanket keeping the capsule safe until it's time to let the spores go. If you look in the background, you'll also see a polypore coming out of the log...


The Soggy Bottom Trail did not disappoint!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Neglected Collections

After my college graduation last May, I've been using my free time to go back through the bug collections I did while still an undergraduate. I had a lot of material left over--both dry specimens and ethanol specimens, along with photographs and lists to organize. I never quite had the time to do it while taking classes (or at least, that's what I tell myself), so I'm very glad I can take care of it now.

I've had this blog post about respecting your specimens gnawing at me since I read it during the summer, and felt a bit guilty. I had some pretty crappy labels with my specimens, or even worse, no labels at all! For some, I could remember exactly where I was standing when I collected them, so it wasn't a huge problem. But for others...well, those just had to be thrown out as useless.

Some of my specimens were new to the collection and represented unique information, so I wanted to make sure they were properly labeled and taken care of. With that mission in mind, I've devoted myself over the past month to slogging through my material that's been languishing for months (in a few cases, years). And now, I'm beginning to see results!

This box only has six empty spots now.

I've prepared labels for 90 specimens and put many of them under the microscope to identify them as close to species level as I could. This was difficult for a number of them, especially the centipedes, due to lack of practice by me and the lack of recent references, but it's been a fun challenge. I've also found some interesting animals (such as the centipede Theatops, the subject of my previous blog post) and experienced some great memories. Most of my millipedes were collected for a Field Techniques class with the help of two good friends, who spent their evening sampling through leaf litter with me. A scorpion was collected during a summer class in the New Mexican desert, where I learned about arthropod UV fluorescence for the first time.

Now I'm at the point where I can do something with all my collected specimens. Some of what I'm working on includes:
  • A guide to Ohio centipedes, which will be accessible online and will have pictures of certain identification characteristics to make up for the paucity of reference material online.
  • A publication of my assassin bug research
  • A publication/guide of local millipede species
It's exciting to put together what I've been working on for the past few years, and to find new projects. I'm hopeful that what I'm doing will be useful for others interested in these groups in Ohio. There definitely hasn't been much done with centipedes and millipedes, which is a barrier to anyone wanting to learn more about them or do their own research, so maybe this can be a springboard for future studies.

My to-do list: keeping me going. That "hola" has been there for a while, so I couldn't bring myself to erase it.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Entomological Smackdown

"Yet the law of priority compels its adoption, and one's regret is perhaps to a certain extent lessened by the satisfaction derived from abolishing a name so ill-formed and so ill-sounding as Opisthemega." -R.I. Pocock
The above is taken from a manuscript clearing up confusion about the genus Theatops, which includes a few large centipedes with surprisingly fat terminal legs.

It's burying into the ground here, with the terminal legs trailing at the top of the picture. Yes, it can pinch with them.

There are many hidden gems like these in scientific publications, and it's always a joy to come across them. You're reminded that the entomologists writing them are people too. And I must agree, Opisthemega is a terrible name.

Reference:
Pocock RI. 1888. Annals And Magazine of Natural History. 1:283-290. Link.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Science Video Friday - I Lichen This Post

The wonderful Field Museum in Chicago featured this video about Steve Leavitt and his lichen research, which hit my soft spot for these organisms.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Marvelous Mossy Millipedes

I learned a new word recently: epizoic. It's related to epiphytic, which describes the relationship of plants that grow on top of other plants (think of bromeliads or lichens that grow on trees). While epiphytic plants have a house, epizoic plants have a mobile home---they grow on top of animals.

And what do some mosses use as a mobile home? Millipedes! In a paper published in December 2011, S. Daniela Martínez T. et al. describe this relationship between 10 species of mosses and a tropical millipede, Psammodesmus bryophorus.

Obviously this millipede is at the cutting edge of fashion.

Field work for this study was done at the Reserva Natural Río Nambi in Colombia. As the scientists sorted the 124 millipedes they collected, they noticed that some of their P. bryophorus specimens looked a bit green...because they had moss growing on their backs. (Sadly, the paper doesn't indicate whether or not the mosses caused any uncomfortable itching.)

Intrigued, they set to work and checked the 20 P. bryophorus millipedes they collected and found that 15 of them had mossy backs. One enterprising male was conducting a party train--he had 55 individual moss plants on his back. For a closer look at how the mosses grow, check out the next photo.

Figure 2 from S. Daniela Martínez T. et al. 2011.

The authors provide a guess as to why the mosses choose this species as land to build upon: it provides a stable surface. Better to build your house on a rock than decomposing leaf litter, eh? The mosses may provide an advantage for the millipede as well: P. bryophorus has a few racing stripes down its back, and the mosses cover those up, providing camouflage. These working hypotheses will have to be tested further, of course, but they're plausible.

A final fun fact? Spores from these mosses can fall off the millipede and grow into new plants elsewhere. Imagine that, a millipede imitating Johnny Appleseed. Maybe it should be named Mildred Mossspore.

I recommend reading the article itself for more information. You can view/download it for free here.

Reference:
Martínez-Torres SD, Flórez Daza ÁE, Linares-Castillo EL. (2011). Meeting between kingdoms: discovery of a close association between Diplopoda and Bryophyta in a transitional Andean-Pacifc forest in Colombia. In: Mesibov R, Short M (Eds) Proceedings of the 15th International Congress of Myriapodology, 18–22 July 2011, Brisbane, Australia. International Journal of Myriapodology 6: 29–36. doi: 10.3897/ijm.6.2187

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Top of the Gob Pile

I was inspecting an area with an acid mine drainage problem last Wednesday for work and we found the source pretty easily: a massive gob pile. What's a gob pile? It's the pile of stuff left over from coal mining. There's a lot of different materials in it, including a lot of shale, giving it a black color. It's an ugly thing that causes lots of problems, but regulation in the US has stopped companies from abandoning them since 1977.

Interestingly enough, there were a few plants growing on the top of the pile, and a few old stumps, which held some biology after all.


This tiny grasshopper blended in with the fall colors, until it jumped onto a patch of moss.


Pixie Cup Lichen, Cladonia pyxidata, grew in a couple patches.


British Soldier Lichen, Cladonia cristatella, made itself known with its bright red caps. Those red caps on the stalks hold its spores.


And since I can never resist turning over a decaying log, I was rewarded with this scarab beetle grub. Not sure what it is, but it's kind of pretty. If you squint a lot, it almost resembles a delicious dumpling.

"Life will find a way."

Friday, 19 October 2012

Science Video Friday - The Naturalist President

There are a lot of reasons to admire Theodore Roosevelt, America's 26th president. Chiefly among them to me is his passion for conservation. This video from The American Museum of Natural History explores the roots of his passion, which grew from his interests in natural history during his youth.




Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Herd of Zebras

After enjoying a meal in the park a few weeks ago with my girlfriend, I stopped by a sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) to check for any insects. The sweet gum is abundant in Ohio and is one of my favorite trees. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would throw the seed balls at my friends. Good times.

I noticed an orange bug near the trunk of the tree and stooped down to investigate.


Success! I had found Pselliopus barberi, a species I like to refer to as the zebra-striped assassin bug. I kept looking and found another one. Then another. And another....all in all, I counted 29 in total! There were about six pairs which were mating, though I disturbed a few (as you can see in the above photo).

It's not every day that you find so many insects in one place. So what was going on?

The answer lies in the season. This species overwinters as adults, so when it starts getting colder in the fall, the adults band together to find hiding places under bark and wrinkly crevices on trees. Sometimes it results in a little hanky-panky as well. It's for the good of the species, of course.

SCATTER GUYS, SCATTER!

On a related note, this was a time I was glad to have my Droid X with me. I didn't have my camera, but thankfully I was able to snap a few photos with my phone instead. They're not as high quality, but they get the job done and allowed me to identify the species of these bugs. And people say technology removes us from nature... Pro tip: it's all about how you use it.

Now, when will the assassin bugs come out again? That depends on when it warms up. Last year, I got my hands on an adult at the end of January. Last year was an abnormally hot winter, however, so (I hope) it won't be until early next Spring that we'll start to see the adults emerge from their hiding spots.

References:
Heteroptera of Eastern North America. 1926. W.S. Blatchley. The Nature Publishing Company.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

This centipede is so happy!

Quick! Describe centipedes in one word!

You said "optimistic," right?


Because the face on the back of this centipede's head is super happy, even when suspended in ethanol. This is a centipede in the genus Strigamia, collected last October from leaf litter when I was searching for millipedes. I wonder if other species have different faces...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

A Portfolio of Historical Insects

I had some extra time after work today, which I used to visit Marietta College's Special Collections. They keep scores of old documents, many dating back to when the Ohio Company of Associates first established Marietta in 1788 as the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. What I was after today, however, had an Entomological bent to it.

A young Hildreth, via Wikipedia.
Samuel Prescott Hildreth, a doctor who lived in Marietta during the early to mid-1800s did some of the first work in Ohio studying insects. He was a naturalist and published the first observations of the periodical cicada's 17 year life cycle, which is what I was after. I didn't find any of his cicada papers, but the librarian did bring me a book he wrote and illustrated, entitled "Portfolio of Insects."

This book includes paintings by Hildreth of various insects from Marietta and elsewhere in Ohio. When I first opened the book, I was greeted with beautiful illustrations of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) during all of its life stages. I had an immediate visceral reaction to that page--the tobacco hornworm is one of the first insects I raised when I became interested in Entomology, and it was emotional for me to be confronted by this right after opening the book. It was a direct connection to a naturalist who had written this Portfolio 150 years ago.

That caught me by surprise. I was excited, but sheesh, that almost brought tears to my eyes.

I soldiered on, invigorated by each page and by the connection I felt with Hildreth. His book was a veritable menagerie of the most charismatic insects you can find around Marietta, and which are still around today--one of the perks of having a lot of woods and natural areas in the county.

The book is only about 40 pages long, and each page showcases a colorful new creature: a brilliant Luna moth, a royal walnut moth, a smattering of other large moths and butterflies, a giant water bug...even a red eft (Notophthalmus viridescens) and a sketch of what Marietta College looked like during his time! As for his handwriting, it was difficult to read. I could make out some descriptions and names of plants and insects, but that was about it. Fortunately, his labels for each illustration were neater. I recognized the scientific names for each species and even noted some that had changed during the previous 150 years. Imagine that, eh?

Hildreth was truly a Renaissance man: in addition to being a naturalist, he was a doctor, geologist, and historian. He was active in the community as well, and today has a street in Marietta named after him.

Sadly, I only had an hour to look at the book before I had to leave, but I'll definitely return soon. I have some more research to do vis–à–vis Hildreth's cicada research, which I hope will also feature some of his illustrations.

Hildreth's Portfolio of Insects is an achingly beautiful direct connection to the past. It means a lot to me, being a native to Marietta, and for me, it inspires a timeless feeling of camaraderie with Dr. Hildreth. I recognize these insects drawn so long ago and I can still go out and find them. Had we lived at the same time, I think he and I would be good friends.

I wish I had at least one picture from the book, but I'll have to speak with the librarian about any effects taking pictures would have on it. Who knows, maybe we can get it digitized. In lieu of any pictures, I will leave you with a quotation Hildreth used to begin a paper on cicadas he published in 1830:
"No part of natural history more abounds in wonderful and extraordinary productions, than that portion of it embraced in the study of Entomology."

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Dancing Stick

The species I find in the county never cease to amaze me.  This delightful stick insect, for example, takes a discerning eye to pick out in the forest.

"My dream in life is....TO DANCE!"

But not really. This guy found me when he started to crawl on a friend during a recent potluck. It's a Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata, the continent's most common walkingstick. It's about three inches long, but looks bigger because of how long its legs are. 

Its limbs are leafy green and its body looks like it's been sculpted straight from a tree, giving it some terrific camouflage. I've been observing it in an insect cage for the last few days and it truly is a remarkable insect. Walkingsticks are the world's best method actors, taking their role as a stick very seriously. 

...which is a good strategy, as birds are liable to pick these guys right off the plants they're feeding on. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

Science Video Friday - Gangnam Style Science

If you haven't yet heard of the massively popular video Gangnam Style, click that link to check it out. Personally, I'm more of a Call Me Maybe guy, but to each his own.

But what if you add Bill Nye the Science Guy to Gangnam Style? Well, I end up liking the video a whole lot more.


This is where social media meets science, and it is glorious.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Species of the Beiser Field Station

I've been busy lately, in a good way. My current project is identifying all the species of insects, spiders, millipedes, and other arthropods I've found at the Barbara A. Beiser Field Station (BBFS) over the past few years as an undergraduate at Marietta College. I spent many hours at the field station and thoroughly explored much of it, taking many photos along the way. I have an article about my experiences coming up in the next issue of the Marietta Natural History Society's newsletter, which I'll link to when it comes out.

UPDATE!: You can read my article here (PDF warning). It starts on page 4, titled Beiser Browsings.

So far I've identified around 200 arthropods from BBFS. The timeline for my sightings and collections goes back to 2010 or so, when I first started going there for things like labs and work days, and the identifications have been a long time in coming. It feels great to have so many identified though, as there hasn't been a taxonomic inventory of BBFS since it was acquired in 2008.

I expect the final list of creepy crawlies to hover around 220, after accounting for duplicates. Some of them are only identified down to family, but I've identified the majority down to species, including some lesser-known groups (that is, those that lack readily-available identification resources) such as harvestmen and millipedes. I've collected many of the species, which are now in the Biology department's insect collection. I'm hoping that somewhere down the line, these collections will come in handy for future students, especially my assassin bug and millipede specimens.

I've found so many charismatic species that have blown me away at BBFS. Combined with the recently-planted patch of pawpaws at BBFS, I expect people to start flocking there in droves in the coming years.

A harvestman from BBFS, Vonones sayi. This pretty species lives under rocks and bark, and exhibits some of the diversity within the harvestmen: they're not all nondescript balls with legs!

Friday, 21 September 2012

Science Video Friday - A mass of harvestmen

After attending a harvestman workshop this past summer, I've become quite interested in the Opiliones. They're a much more diverse group than I previously thought. One of the things I've been searching for since then has been a massive gathering of them, which this lucky person found.

,

Neat? Or terrifying?
Definitely neat. Come on, harvestmen don't even have venom glands!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

R.I.P., Richard Hoffman

I recently learned that Dr. Richard Hoffman, the emeritus curator of the Department of Recent Invertebrates at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, passed away a few months ago. This is sad news, and it affected me more than I expected.

I never met him, but after I started researching millipedes, there was no getting away from his work. It's difficult to find a millipede article without at least one citation to Dr. Hoffman, and usually you find more. He laid the foundation for millipede research in North America, and boy was he prolific.

His research interests weren't solely limited to the millipedes, however. He also studied reptiles and amphibians, and other arthropods. Just today I received a publication about the Assassin Bugs of Virginia authored by Dr. Hoffman in 2006, one of the hundreds of publications he authored during his life.

Dr. Hoffman will be sorely missed, but certainly won't be forgotten by anyone with even a passing interest in millipedes.


For more information about Dr. Hoffman's life and research, listen to Dr. Art Evans discuss his interactions with Dr. Hoffman here, and a brief listing of Hoffman's accomplishments can be found on the Virginia Museum of Natural History's website.


Friday, 31 August 2012

Science Video Friday - Parasitoidism in action

For parasitoidism being as gruesome as it is, the following video is surprisingly cute. I'll attribute that to the soundtrack. It also doesn't hurt that these wasps are parasitizing the eggs of an invasive stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, the brown marmorated stink bug.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Late Summer Insects: Now showing!

Summer's starting to wind down (despite the temperature still hovering around 90 degrees on a daily basis), and that means new insects are now starting to make their appearances. One of my favorite groups are the assassin bugs, family Reduviidae, and late summer happens to be one of the best times to study them. Ohio's most charismatic species reach adulthood during this time, including the wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) and the jagged ambush bugs (genus Phymata).

The ambush bugs are small, stout assassin bugs in the subfamily Phymatinae. The family contains three genera in North America, and the most commonly-seen ones are in the genus Phymata. The subfamily hasn't received as much study as the rest of the assassin bugs, so your best bet for identification is to check out BugGuide's page. Dan Swanson has done some great work to figure out how to identify the Phymata spp., but it can still be tough.

A jagged ambush bug, Phymata sp., awaiting its next victim on wingstem.

Where are the best places to look for ambush bugs? Wherever the fall wildflowers are blooming. Roadsides and sunny fields are good bets, and it's usually worth your time to check out plants such as Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), Ironweed (Vernonia spp.), and Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). Ambush bugs prefer to creep around flowers, waiting for other insects to come in and land on the flower heads, and that's when the bugs grab them. Like other assassin bugs, ambush bugs have a proboscis they insert into their prey and use to pump in digestive enzymes. The bug will then stay a while, drinking up their milkshake.

These bugs come in a variety of colors: the picture above shows an ambush bug that's yellow with some green on its abdomen, but this can vary. These bugs exhibit some convincing camouflage, and if you want to find one on goldenrod, you may have to search for a while.

A golden ambush bug, Phymata sp.

Camouflage doesn't always help these bugs, however. You might not be able to see them, but sometimes you'll see their prey held, unmoving, above the flowers. Since dead insects don't have the power to levitate, you can be sure a predator is underneath, having a feast.

You may also encounter another vicious predator while walking through fields during this time a year, though you would barely know it as it flew by.

A gnat ogre, Holcocephala sp.

Believe it or not, the above fly is a robber fly, in the family Asilidae. Robber flies can be over an inch long, but this particular genus contains three species in Ohio, all of which could fit on your pinky nail. They're formidable foes of small insects such as gnats, small bees, and wasps, and are territorial. These ogres don't fear much, least of all humans, which allows people to get up close and personal with them. Macro lenses come in handy here. If the gnat ogre flies off before you can get your shot, just wait a while--it will probably come back and land on the same blade of grass in a few seconds.

There's a lot more out there waiting to be found, and many insects will disappear for the season while others start to emerge. If you want to see the beautiful Eastern Cicada Killer wasp, (Sphecius speciosus), for example, you only have a few more weeks left before it's gone for the year. Get outside and start looking now, before it's too late!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

"It looks like an uncooked sausage"

One of my mantras when I go out to look for bugs and other critters is "Turn over that decaying log." You always have a great chance of finding neat stuff when you look through decaying wood, including creatures such as centipedes, millipedes, spiders, slugs, and of course, insects.

Today was no exception.

"O hai!"

After rolling over a particularly good log, I looked into a hole bored into the wood and found what one girl described as "an uncooked sausage" before she backed away to find some prettier biology. Despite its leathery appearance a bird or small mammal would look upon this beetle grub with much more glee. Then it would gobble this sucker down in a heartbeat.

A grub in the hand is worth...two in the log?

Judging by the size of this grub, I'm guessing that it's a grub of the Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus), though I'm not completely sure. I've uploaded it to BugGuide and hope to hear back about it soon. 

While decaying logs may not be the prettiest addition to wooded areas, they're still quite useful to the ecology of the forest. Without them, beetle grubs like this one would lose their only habitat, thus denying us their impressive beauty as adult beetles.

Monday, 20 August 2012

If it looks like a wasp, it's a beetle

The Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) in my backyard has been a constant bane of my existence ever since it started to creep in a few years ago, but today it yielded some nice results. When it flowers during the summer, it brings in a lot of pretty bees and wasps, and today I found a wasp-mimic beetle.


The venerable locust borer, Megacyllene robiniae, was busily sticking its head into the knotweed flowers until I disturbed it. I took a few photos, then lifted my camera and realized the beetle was gone. Luckily, I was able to snap this photo of it folding out its wings to escape the paparazzi.

The locust borer is a longhorned beetle in the family Cerambycidae and develops as a larva inside of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), from which it emerges as an adult in the fall. It then nectars on flowers such as goldenrod and searches for a mate. This species takes its Batesian mimicry to the max--even the top of its abdomen, normally covered by its elytra--has the yellow markings that mimic a wasp. Now that's dedication.

I was hoping to find this species in my backyard, as I knew there are black locust trees around. I normally don't see adults of this beetle until the fall, so this was a nice surprise. Now to add this to my list of backyard species!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Science Video Friday - A Centipede's Song

It's time for a musical Science Video Friday, courtesy of a fan of house centipedes, Scutigera coleoptrata. I was very pleased after I found this video--not only is it about our many-legged friends, but it's very good and catchy. I sometimes find myself singing it from time to time. And some of the photos he features are pretty cute.


Saturday, 11 August 2012

Science Video Friday (on Saturday!) - Curiosity ignored the cat, landed on Mars

NASA continues to be the most inspiring arm of government we have in the United States. At the beginning of the week, millions of us followed along on the web as the newest Mars Rover, Curiosity, landed on Mars to begin its study of chemistry and geology on the Martian surface. A full-fledged mobile science laboratory, it landed on Mars safely after the "7 minutes of terror" experienced by mission control in Pasadena, California.

The Internet erupted in joy when Curiosity transmitted back its first image of  Mars, seven minutes after landing. For a video of the descent, NASA has kindly provided one, embedded below.


And as usual, XKCD has succinctly summarized just what exactly NASA accomplished.

For more info on the landing:
Yahoo News
Washington Post

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Thrill of Discovery

Max Barclay, the collections manager in the Entomology department at the Natural History Museum in London just posted something on Twitter that I had to share. It's an account Alfred Russell Wallace wrote about the butterfly Ornithoptera croesus, when he found a male of the species in Indonesia. From his book, The Malay Archipelago, 1869:
"The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause."
The butterfly is now known as Wallace's Golden Birdwing, and he wasn't kidding when he wrote that other naturalists would understand what he experienced. While my experiences in Ohio haven't resulted in as showy of an insect, I have been dazzled by half-foot long wasps (if you count the ovipositor), a beetle the color of a Crayola macaroni crayon, and a beautiful Luna moth that hadn't yet pumped up its wings. In the moment when I realize I've found such stunning insects, I know exactly what Wallace meant. And after that moment? The whole day is filled with thoughts about that Amorpha borer or Luna moth.

In case you're wondering why a butterfly would give Wallace such a start, Wikipedia provides a plate from Reise Fregatte Novara. Zoologischer by Rudolf Felder and Alois Friedrich Rogenhofer showing the male and female, top and bottom, respectively.


While others may faint at the sight of an insect due to fear, we entomologists are liable to faint out of excitement.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Cicada Killers, Human Friends

Wasps: one of the most feared groups of insects. They're also one of the most hated, namely because of the propensity of some species to sting. If you've found yourself at the business end of a wasp, you probably weren't too happy. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that this is how many people view wasps:


But perhaps wasps don't deserve such a bad reputation. Many species of wasps play important roles in the ecosystem, including parasitism of caterpillars and pollination of flowers. Some aren't aggressive towards humans, for example the Eastern Cicada Killer, Sphecius speciosus.

Intimidating at first, sure. But not a threat!

This wasp isn't interested in ruining our day. The male might be interested in us at first, but that's because he's curious: he patrols his territory looking for females. If something new moves in, he has to check it out to see if it's a female he can mate with. You know, kind of like a teenager. The males can't even sting, though they can jab you with a sharp spine. The females, however, are able to sting. But you'll have to punch it in the face while holding it to get it to sting you. No, these wasps are interested in game closer to their size...

Now we're talking!

If you haven't already figured it out by now, the Eastern Cicada Killer kills cicadas. Aptly named, no? The whole story is more intricate, however. First, the wasp needs to catch the cicada. She will fly around, searching for her prey, and then snatch it out of the air. Out comes her stinger, and boom: the cicada is paralyzed. Not killed, mind you--that would be too easy. She drags the cicada back to her sandy nest and deposits it in an earthen chamber, along with an egg. After that, she seals up the chamber and flies off to catch more cicadas. The female may have many egg chambers in her nest, all sealed and containing a cicada or two. 

Don't forget that throughout this process, the cicada is still alive, sealed in its tomb. What comes next? Death by grub. After the baby wasp hatches, it devours the warm, nutritious cicada and pupates. Overwintering comes next, and after it warms back up during the summer, the adult wasp emerges and continues the cycle anew. 

By killing cicadas, these wasps act as an ecological equalizer for trees. They remove cicadas from the environment, giving the trees a break from being nibbled on by the musical Hemipterans. On a related note, wouldn't it be fascinating to measure the population of the cicada killers after a periodical cicada emergence? Perhaps the influx of so many cicadas allows their own populations to explode, resulting in a whole bunch of cicada killers (and scared humans) the next summer. Of course, that's only if the cicada emergence coincides with when the cicada killers are active. 2016 is the next year for Brood V in Ohio, so keep your eyes open.

On a final note, in case you're wondering what the species name speciosus means, it's derived from the Latin for "showy" or "beautiful." Another apt description for this wasp.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Recap: Midwest Native Plants Conference 2012

This weekend was a complete rush for me. Finally, after an entire year of waiting, it was time to attend the 2012 Midwest Native Plants Conference. This conference brings together gardeners, naturalists, and scientists from all walks of life for three days to learn about the ecology of native plants and their effects on other wildlife, such as birds and insects. It's a magical time, full of interesting people and lots of knowledge jam packed into the Bergamo Center outside of Dayton, Ohio.

This year's speakers included: Cheryl Harner, who spoke about native plants as habitat; Ian Adams, who wowed us with beautiful pictures of dragonflies and damselflies; Marielle Anzelone, who taught us that there's a lot of botany to find in New York City, and the keynote speaker, David Wagner, the man who literally wrote the book on caterpillars. Not one session went by without multiple gasps of excitement from the crowd--these were top notch speakers. This isn't even mentioning the myriad of breakout sessions available, which covered topics from Pollinators by Jim McCormac to Conifers by David Brandenburg. The organizers behind this conference sure do know how to pick some engaging speakers.

Sitting in a room listening to some smart people speak is all well and good, but at some point, you've gotta get out into the field and search for the stuff the smart people are talking about. Thankfully, the conference featured multiple day trips and night hikes to satiate that need. A wonderful collection of insects were found on these trips, as the following photos show.

Jim McCormac talks about the singing insects to a group of 77 people: the biggest group of people ever had on the night hike!

David Wagner shows off a conehead katydid, careful to watch for its mandibles.

How could it be a successful hike without an assassin bug? This spiny assassin bug (Sinea sp.) was hiding on Eupatorium perfoliatum, also known as boneset.

This Delicate Cycnia (Cycnia tenera) was hiding on milkweed.

It's important to remain vigilant if you're an insect checking out Queen Anne's Lace: sometimes an ambush bug (Phymata sp.) will be waiting for you! They're masters of flower camouflage.

What discussion of camouflage would be complete without including the stick insects? These phasmids are a sight to behold, and you may be surprised at their size. This one isn't even fully grown.

I can't stress enough how beautiful it is to watch a cicada molt. This annual cicada (Tibicen sp.) is showing off its lovely wings--they really do have a blue hue to them immediately after molting. 

What's great about being surrounded by experts is that they'll let you know when you come across something rare. So when we came upon a lemon beauty of a caterpillar, Jim stepped up and told us more about it.


On our first nature walk, we came across a patch of wild blue indigo, Baptisia australis, one of the host plants for the Genista broom moth caterpillar, Uresiphita reversalis. One plant was providing habitat for a dozen of these caterpillars, leading us to conclude that its bright yellow color was a warning to birds that it sequesters toxins. This moth is starting to make inroads into Ohio, as it moves northward. It's probable that this range expansion has been caused by climate change. This species is more southern in distribution, but with the warming north, new habitat has opened up for it. For a more in-depth report of this caterpillar, check out Jim's blog post here.

This is a small snippet of what was happening at the conference. Despite all I've talked about here, the conference really was about plants, not insects. It just happens to be my luck that the insects are so intimately linked to the plants. If you haven't made it out to the conference before, start planning to attend: next year is sure to be even better.