My first experience with Prionus lure

Our quick stop in Hardtner, Kansas to see “Beetle Bill” Smith at the beginning of our Great Plains Collecting Trip had already produced one unexpected success—the long-sought-after Buprestis confluenta. However, our trip didn’t really begin in earnest until noon the next day when field mate Jeff Huether and I stopped in the middle of a vast, dry grassland north of Las Animas in southeastern Colorado. Even at this point we hadn’t gotten to the first of our planned localities a little further south where we were hoping to find longhorned beetles in the genus Prionus, the main objective of the trip, using recently developed pheromone lures. Jeff had, however, collected an interesting blister beetle at this spot on an earlier trip and wanted to take another look since we were in the area. I looked out across the desolate landscape and wondered what on Earth I could find here that would be even remotely interesting to me.

Shortgrass prairie, 10.5 mi N of Las Animas, Colorado.

Shortgrass prairie, 10.5 mi N of Las Animas, Colorado.

I was convinced there was no point for me to look around, but I wanted to let Jeff have some time to look for his blister beetle, so I milled around the vicinity of the car to look for any flowers that might be in bloom and hoped to maybe see a tiger beetle or two. As is often the case, plants were a little lusher and more diverse along the roadsides due to rain shadowing by the road, so I decided to walk down the roadside and see what I might find. I hadn’t gone too far when I saw a big, brown beetle crawling along the edge of the road. My first thought while approaching it was ground beetle, but I quickly decided it was not that. Only when I crouched down and looked at the beetle, crawling with some urgency but making no attempt to fly, did I realize that it was a female Prionus (later identified as P. integer LeConte, 1851 in the subgenus Homaesthesis). I had, in fact, only once before ever seen a female Prionus, that being the ginormous species P. heroicus in southeastern Arizona almost 30 years ago. Incredible! We hadn’t even gotten to the first spot where we planned to look for Prionus, and I’d already found one. And a female, no less!

Prionus integer female

Prionus (Homaesthesis) integer LeConte, 1851 (female).

Jeff was out of ear-shot, so I resumed my walk along the roadside to look for more. Not long afterwards I found a male carcass laying on the ground, and then shortly afterwards I found another one. One of the carcasses was in pretty good condition still, giving me optimism that I would find a live one as well. Frustratingly, however, I saw nothing more during the next hour as I continued slowly down the road to a distance of nearly one mile from the car and then along the other side all the way back. During the time that I was searching, I noticed strange burrows in the ground. They were only along the roadsides and were especially numerous in the area where I had found the female and two male carcasses. The diggings looked fresh, so I tried excavating a few. They were no more than two inches deep, and I found nothing in any of the dozen or so burrows that I excavated. Nevertheless, I was convinced that the burrows were somehow associated with the Prionus beetles that I had found (even though I had never heard of burrows associated with adult Prionus beetles, nor have I been able to find anything in the literature since)—the size of the burrow matched that of the beetles perfectly, and the presence of fresh diggings meant something had made them recently. If the Prionus beetles didn’t make them, then what did?

Prionus integer burrow

Prionus integer adult burrow.

All the time as I was searching, I wondered if Jeff knew about the beetles occurring here. However, when we finally met up again near the car and I showed him what I had found, I could see by the surprised look on his face that this was not the case. I also showed him the burrows that I’d found, and we both agreed they had to be connected to the beetles. I decided to try using a shovel instead of my knife to excavate more burrows, thinking that maybe I wasn’t excavating deep enough, so we got the shovel out of the truck, walked to the area where I had seen the live female, sunk the shovel deep into the ground next to one of the burrows, and pried up a chuck of the soil containing the burrow in its entirety. As we broke apart the soil there it was—another female!

Prionus integer female

A female Prionus integer dug from her burrow (shovel in lower right).

We excavated more burrows in the vicinity, preferentially choosing those with the freshest-looking diggings, and while most were empty we did find several more females. We were beginning to think that only the females created the burrows, but eventually a male was dug from its burrow as well. By now it was clear that we needed to make the first schedule change of the trip (before even reaching the first planned locality!) and decided to set out lure-baited traps and check them later in the evening before resuming our plans the next day. We expected the beetles to become active during dusk, so we went into town to eat dinner and check out a nearby locality before returning to the site. While we were gone heavy rains moved through  the area, and we weren’t sure if or how this would affect beetle activity and their possible attraction to the traps. However, as we approached the site (slipping and sliding on the muddy 2-track), we could actually see beetles crawling on the road from afar. What we found when we got out of the car was nothing short of mind-blowing—beetles were everywhere, crawling on the road, crawling through the grass, and overflowing in the flooded traps! The vast majority, as expected, were males—distinguishable by their smaller size and distinctly flabellate antennae—but we also found a fair number of the much more rarely collected females—most of them either mating or digging burrows.

Prionus integer mating pair

A male Prionus integer attempts to mate with a female.

It was tempting to focus on just collecting individuals, as we had clearly encountered an ephemeral emergence event. However, it was soon apparent that the number of individuals milling around and flying into the area was far greater than what we could possibly put in our bottles. As I gradually realized this, my focus shifted from collecting to observing—especially the females involved in mating and digging burrows. Most of the females that I saw digging burrows had their abdomens protruding from the burrow as they used their front legs to dig soil from the burrow, but eventually I noticed a burrow that had a female sitting completely within the burrow with her head just below and facing towards the burrow opening.

Prionus integer female

A Prionus integer female sits in her burrow.

I crouched down and watched the female closely (through the camera lens) and noticed a regular, almost rhythmic movement by the beetle as she sat in the burrow. I imagined perhaps the female was in the act of oviposition, although I now think it unlikely that this is the case (it doesn’t make sense for a female to make the energetic expenditure to dig a burrow large enough to contain the adult body when a simple probe of the ovipositor into the soil surface would accomplish the same thing. It also occurred to me that the female was emitting pheromone to attract males, but this begs the same question: why call for mates while enclosed within a burrow when doing so from the surface would be just as (and possibly more) effective. At any rate, the chance to observe mating and other behaviors made the encounter far more informative than if our focused had remained strictly on collecting the abundance that we had encountered.

Prionus integer female

Prionus integer female moving rhythmically in her burrow, but why?

Barr & Penrose (1969) give the only biological notes I am aware of for this species, noting that the larvae have been associated with the roots of sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus) and on two occasions finding larvae damaging newly planted beans or cutting underground stems of potato plants in southern Idaho. In both cases the fields had been recently cleared for cultivation, suggesting opportunistic feeding by larvae that were already present in the soil and feeding on native hosts when the land was cleared. At any rate, the site where we found the species was completely devoid of any rangeland shrubs, suggesting that herbaceous plants also may serve as suitable hosts for the species. We did observe small bunch grasses that were abundant in the area where both the beetles and their burrows were most numerous—in fact (although perhaps coincidentally), the burrows seemed most often to have been dug at the base of these grasses (see 3rd and 6th photos).

The sinking sun in the west and receding storm clouds in the east created conditions ripe for rainbows—a fitting exclamation point to our first (and completely unexpected) Prionus success of the trip. As the cloak of dusk descended, we packed up our gear and headed into town full of optimism about what other Prionus experiences lay ahead in the coming days.

Rainbow over shortgrass prairie

A rainbow hangs over the shortgrass prairie.

REFERENCE:

Barr, W. F. & R. L. Penrose. 1969. Notes on the distribution and bionomics of some Idaho Cerambycidae (Coleoptera). Great Basin Naturalist 29:88–95 [Biodiversity Heritage Library].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Cerambycidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

North America’s Most Beautiful Agrilus Jewel Beetle

For the past few years I’ve spent the summers traveling once a month or so from my home near St. Louis to research plots in western Tennessee. I enjoy these trips immensely—not only are my research and the colleagues that I spend time with fun, but I also get to keep an eye on the progression of the season in one of Missouri’s most interesting (and threatened) natural communities: the southeastern lowlands. Spring sees the emergence of an unusual population of the Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris) in the area’s critically imperiled sand prairies; summer harks the appearance of the diminutive and almost-impossible-to-see Ant-like Tiger Beetle (Cylindera cursitans) in the ribbons of wet bottomland forest that line the Mississippi River; autumn is graced by the sight of stunningly beautiful amorpha borers (Megacyllene decora) in wet areas hosting mixed stands of false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) and goldenrod (Solidago spp.); and all season long a variety of seldom-seen insects (e.g., longhorned beetles that look like stag beetles) are attracted to ultraviolet lights set up in the area’s increasingly scarce natural habitats.

Hairy mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpus), host for Agrilus concinnus

Hairy mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpus), host for Agrilus concinnus

Another phenological event that I look forward to in the southeastern lowlands is the blooming period of hairy mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpus). Starting in July and reaching its peak in early to mid-August, the enormous white (and sometimes pink) flowers explode across the landscape at a time when precious few other flowers can be found, conspicuously flagging any ground where water tends to stand. It is not the flowers themselves, however, that pique my interest, but rather a beautiful (and, until recently, rare) jewel beetle (family Buprestidae)—Agrilus concinnus—that becomes active on the plants while they are in flower. In fact, of the nearly 200 species belonging to the genus in North America, I consider A. concinnus to be perhaps the most beautiful!

Agrilus concinnus | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Agrilus concinnus | Stoddard Co., Missouri

I first saw this species in Missouri’s southeastern lowlands nearly 30 years ago. At that time, I didn’t know that the mating pair that I had found on low vegetation represented a species considered to be one of the rarest of the genus in North America (having been recorded only from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and Texas and not yet known from Missouri) and whose host plant and biology were completely unknown. Over the course of several years following this first find, fellow buprestophile Gayle Nelson (now deceased) and I were able to document the occurrence of this species also in Kansas (MacRae & Nelson 2003) and confirm its association with plants in the genus Hibiscus (MacRae 2006). We also determined that adults of this species exhibited an unusually late seasonal occurrence, peaking in late July and early August, compared to the spring adult activity period of most other eastern North American species in the genus. As a result of these efforts, one of North America’s rarest and least known jewel beetles was no longer regarded as either. A more detailed summary of my experiences with this beetle can be found in a newsletter article that I wrote a while back (MacRae 2004).

Hibiscus lasiocarpus

Plants in peak bloom signals the adult activity period of the beetle.

Of course, those were the days before I began photographing insects, so despite the abundance with which I have seen this species in past years, I still lacked photographs of it. I first made an effort to photograph adults two years ago while on one of my research plot trips, but 2012 was characterized by a severe drought in the central U.S.—precious few potential host plants were found at the locality where I first collected these beetles, and those that were present were severely stunted and in poor shape due to the drought. Conditions were much more favorable last year (2013), but again no beetles were seen during an early August visit. This past season was again favorable for growth of the host plants, and though my visit during early August again looked like it was not going to pay off, I eventually scared up an adult and watched it as it flew to another plant. I would see four adults on the day—not a lot, but enough to make sure that I got photographs showing how spectacularly beautiful they are!

Agrilus concinnus

Adults perch, mate, and feed on the upper leaf surfaces.

REFERENCES:

MacRae, T. C. 2004. Beetle bits: Hunting the elusive “hibiscus jewel beetle”. Nature Notes, Journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society 76(5):4–5 [pdf].

MacRae, T. C. 2006. Distributional and biological notes on North American Buprestidae (Coleoptera), with comments on variation in Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia)viridicornis (Say) and A. (H.) viridfrons Gory. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 82(2):166–199 [pdf].

MacRae, T. C. & G. H. Nelson. 2003. Distributional and biological notes on Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North and Central America and the West Indies, with validation of one species. The Coleopterists Bulletin 57(1):57–70 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Buprestidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Buprestis hat-trick!

In North America, few beetles can rival jewel beetles in the family Buprestidae for sheer beauty, and within the family this beauty is perhaps best exemplified by species in the family’s namesake genus Buprestis. Often flashing yellow, green, coppery, or red, species in this genus combine brilliant colors, moderately large size, and relative rarity to make them desirable additions to the collections of casual and serious collectors alike.

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta | Woods Co., Oklahoma

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta | Woods Co., Oklahoma

Over the years I’ve had some success collecting certain species in this genus, but even after 30 years of collecting there still remain several species that have eluded my net. A few weeks ago I posted photos of and wrote about my experience collecting not one, but two of these species that had so far eluded me—B. striata and B. salisburyensis—both as single specimens from a single tree in the mountains of Tennessee. Three weeks after collecting these species, I began a collecting trip west into the heart of the Great Plains with the primary purpose of using recently developed lures to collect some uncommonly encountered prionid longhorned beetles. Before reaching the first locality, however, field mate Jeff Huether and I stopped off in Hardtner, Kansas to visit with fellow beetle enthusiast “Beetle Bill” Smith and do a little collecting with him before continuing on. Bill took us to a spot just south of the nearby state line into Oklahoma to a spot where he had collected, among other things, yet another of the Buprestis spp. that had so far eluded me—B. confluenta.

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta

If B. striata and B. salisburyensis are beautiful, then B. confluenta is downright stunning! Brilliant green, perhaps with a slight coppery brown to purplish blue hue and with more or less confluent (thus the species name) fine yellow flecks densely scattered over the elytra, it is one of the easiest to identify of any species in the genus. Moreover, unlike the previous two species, I had already made several attempts to collect B. confluenta during several previous trips to the Great Plains, stopping wherever I saw a nice stand of the large eastern cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides) in which larvae of the species are known to develop. Frustratingly, as if to taunt me, I have even seen specimens on more than one occasion in one of the many 4H and student collections that I have examined over the years in Missouri and Kansas.

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta
Today was different, however—I could just feel it. Pulling up to the spot, my attention was immediately drawn to a grove of large cottonwood trees, some dead with bark-less trunks still standing. I thought to myself, “Those look like Buprestis trees!” While Bill and Jeff swept nearby herbaceous plants looking for a blister beetle that Jeff was interested in, I picked my way through the cottonwood grove, carefully approaching each tree—especially the dead ones—and scanning the trunk for any sign of movement or flash of color. It took a long time—well over an hour, by which time I had almost given up hope and begun thinking that this would be yet another unsuccessful attempt to collect the species. Suddenly, there it was sitting on the trunk of a recently fallen tree in all of its unmistakable glory! I froze at first, afraid of spooking it by too excited an approach, then remembered that species of Buprestis in general are not very skittish or as quick to take flight as many other members of the family (e.g., species in the genus Chrysobothris). I resumed my approach, albeit still cautiously just in case, and easily secured the specimen in a vial. My season now included a Buprestis hat-trick! The beetle was not only calm but actually seemed disinclined to flee, prompting me to release it back onto the tree trunk for a few quick field photos before placing it back in the vial for better photos later in the security of my hotel room that evening.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, bark-less cottonwood trunks.

Among North American jewel beetles, B. confluenta has one of the stranger geographic distributions, having been recorded from most of the central and western states and provinces as far east as Quebec and Indiana (Nelson et al. 2008). This is no doubt a consequence of the distribution of its primary larval hosts—cottonwood and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) (Burke 1917, Nicolay & Weiss 1918). In my Missouri checklist (MacRae 1991) I saw only two specimens from the state, both in counties along its western edge near Iowa and Kansas. Considering how abundant cottonwood is in Missouri, it is a mystery to me why this species should be so rare in the state. But then, I’ve not found it easy to come by in Kansas or Oklahoma either, where more records seem to exist than in any other state. Even on this occasion, when I would finally find the species after 30 years of searching, only this one, single specimen was seen. Interestingly, I would also collect about a half dozen specimens of the closely related species, B. rufipes (more commonly associated with oaks), off of the same trees that I searched so intensively for B. confluenta.

The requisite frontal portrait!

The requisite frontal portrait!

REFERENCES:

Burke, H. E. 1917. Flat-headed borers affecting forest trees in the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin 437, 9 pp. [Biodiversity Heritage Library].

MacRae, T. C. 1991. The Buprestidae (Coleoptera) of Missouri. Insecta Mundi 5(2):101–126 [pdf].

Nelson, G. H., G. C. Walters, Jr., R. D. Haines & C. L. Bellamy.  2008.  A Catalogue and Bibliography of the Buprestoidea of American North of Mexico.  Coleopterists Society Special Publication No. 4, The Coleopterists Society, North Potomac, Maryland, 274 pp. [description].

Nicolay, A. S. & H. B. Weiss. 1918. A review of the genus Buprestis in North America. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 26(2):75–109 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Buprestidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Orange and black on gold

Trigonopeltastes delta on goldenrod (Solidago sp.) flowers | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Trigonopeltastes delta on goldenrod (Solidago sp.) flowers | Stoddard Co., Missouri

The spectacular amorpha borer, Megacyllene decora, was not the only black-and-gold colored beetle that I saw on the flowers of goldenrod (Solidago sp.) a few weeks ago. In addition were several delta flower scarabs, Trigonopeltastes delta. This species is much more commonly encountered than the amorpha borer—not only geographically but also throughout the season on a greater diversity of flowers. Nevertheless, I had failed in my previous attempt to photograph the species at the very same locality just a few weeks earlier due to the much higher summer temperatures and resultant flightiness of the beetles.

Trigonopeltastes delta
In the case of this beetle, the scientific name almost completely describes the beetle—the genus name being derived from the Greek words trigon (i.e., triangle, triangular) and pelt, (i.e., a shield), referring to the triangular and shield-shaped pronotum, and the species name based on the Greek letter Δ (“Delta”) in reference to the distinctive white triangle on the pronotum that resembles it. I mentioned the diversity of flowers on which adults of this beetle can be found. Pascarella et al, (2001) found this species on 13 different plant species (including mass aggregations numbering in the thousands on inflorescences of Sabal palm, Sabal palmetto) in their study of flower-visiting insects in the Everglades National Park. In Missouri, I see these beetles most commonly on Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and several other plants with white inflorescences such as American feverfew (Parthenium integrifolium), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and—most recently—hairy mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpos). Interestingly, on this day there was an abundance of white-flowered snakeroot (Eupatorium sp.) in bloom at the same site, but I only saw the beetles on the yellow-flowered goldenrod.

Trigonopeltastes delta
It has been suggested that the Delta pattern on the pronotum and orange-and-black coloration of the elytra combine to mimic the appearance of paper wasps in the genus Polistes. Paper wasps are frequent visitors to many of the same flowers that these beetles frequent; however, the much smaller size of the beetles might suggest mimicry of aculeate hymenopterans (stinging wasps and bees) in general rather than paper wasps specifically. A more unusual type of mimicry has also been suggested in that a rear view of the beetle with its large, white, triangular pygidium seems to resemble the head of a hornet. Supporting this idea is the habit of the beetles to raise and hold their long hind legs in the air when disturbed in a manner that makes them resemble a hornet’s antennae!

Defensive posture with hind legs raised above abdomen.

Defensive posture with hind legs raised above abdomen (iPhone photo).

REFERENCE:

Pascarella, J. B., Waddington, K. D. & P. R. Neal. 2001. Non-apoid flower-visiting fauna of Everglades National Park, Florida. Biodiversity and Conservation 10(4):551–566 [abstract & pdf link].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Coleoptera, Scarabaeidae | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Amorpha borer on goldenrod

Megacyllene decora (amorpha borer) | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Megacyllene decora (amorpha borer) | Stoddard Co., Missouri

One of my favorite longhorned beetle species is the amorpha borer, Megacyllene decora. Like its close relative, the locust borer—M. robiniae, this large, beautiful, black and yellow beetle is a classic harbinger of fall by virtue of its late-season adult activity period and affinity to flowers of goldenrod (Solidago) and snakeroot (Eupatorium). Compared to the locust borer, however, it is larger, chunkier, and more boldly marked, and despite the commonness of goldenrod flowers it is far less commonly encountered than the locust borer due to the more restricted habitat preferences of the larval host plant (false indigo—Amorpha fruticosa).

Megacyllene decora
The beetle in these photos is one of two that I found in late September at a site in the lowlands of southeastern Missouri. I’ve not seen the beetle at this site before, but I knew it must occur here because of the stands of false indigo that I noted during an earlier visit to the site. Considering the large number of plants present, two beetles is much less than I would have expected to see (in fact, both beetles were found in a single patch of goldenrod). I have previously featured this species (see A classic fall ‘bycid) from a site about 50 miles east of this one. At that site also only a few beetles were seen despite an abundance of larval host plants (but the adults occurring on snakeroot flowers instead of goldenrod). Only twice have I seen this species in numbers that I would consider plentiful (both times in western Missouri).

Megacyllene decora
Amorpha borers and locust borers are part of a larger complex of black and yellow insects that visit goldenrod flowers in the fall. These include a variety of bees, wasps, and other beetles (e.g., the delta flower scarab, Trigonopeltastes delta—family Scarabaeidae), but perhaps the most abundant is the goldenrod soldier beetle, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus—family Cantharidae (also called the Pennsylvania leatherwing). One can presume that any or all of these species serve as models for the longhorned beetles—bees and wasps are obviously protected from most predators by their ability to sting, and the bodies of soldier beetles are chemically protected by cantharidin, a highly toxic terpenoid that causes blistering and irritation of mucous membranes at low doses and can be fatal at higher doses. As the mimics, amorpha borers and locust borers could be expected to be less abundant than the models. However, considering how difficult-to-see these beetles can be when sitting on goldenrod flowers, their black-and-yellow coloration seems as though it could just as easily serve a cryptic function. It is even possible that mimicry and crypsis both have contributed to evolution of these beetle’s coloration.

Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Cerambycidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

2014 Great Plains Collecting Trip iReport

During the past year or so I’ve followed up my longer (one week or more) insect collecting trips with a synoptic “iReport”—so named because they are illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs. It may come as a surprise to some, but iPhones actually take pretty good pictures (especially if you pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses), and their small, compact size makes it easy to take lots of photos while trying to use time in the field wisely. I find the iPhone to be a great tool for documenting the general flavor of a trip and for taking quick photos of subjects before getting out the big rig. I will, of course, feature photographs taken with the ‘real’ camera in future posts.

For this trip, I teamed up with Jeff Huether for the third time since 2012. Our quarry for this trip was longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) in the genus Prionus. Larvae of these beetles are subterranean, with some species feeding on roots of woody plants and others on roots of grasses and other herbaceous plants. Among the latter are an array of species occurring in the Great Plains, many of which have been very uncommonly collected. However, in recent years lures have been produced that are impregnated with prionic acid—the principal component of sex pheromones emitted by females in the genus. Originally produced for use in commercial orchards (which are sometimes attacked by P. laticollis in the east and P. californicus in the west), these lures are proving themselves to be useful for us taxonomist-types who wish to augment the limited amount of available material of other, non-economic species in the genus. While Prionus was our main goal, rest assured that I did not pass on the opportunity to find and photograph other beetles of interest.

I began the trip by driving from St. Louis to Wichita, Kansas to meet up with Jeff, who had flown there from his home in upstate New York. Our plan was to visit sites in southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, where several of the Prionus spp. that we were looking for were known to occur. Before doing this, however, we stopped in Hardtner, Kansas to see “Beetle Bill” Smith and tour his amazing natural history tribute, Bill and Janet’s Nature Museum.

"Beetle" Bill Smith, founder of Bill & Janet's Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

“Beetle Bill” Smith, founder of Bill & Janet’s Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

After the tour (and a delicious lunch at his house of fried crappie prepared by his wife Janet), we headed west of town and then south just across the state line into Oklahoma to a spot where Bill had found a blister beetle (family Meloidae) that Jeff was interested in finding. During lunch I mentioned a jewel beetle (family Buprestidae) that I had looked for in the area several times, but which had so far eluded me—Buprestis confluenta. Emerald green with a dense splattering of bright yellow flecks on the elytra, it is one of North America’s most striking jewel beetles and is known to breed in the trunks of dead cottonwoods (Populus deltoides). Bill mentioned that he had collected this species at the very spot where we were going, and when we arrived I was enticed by the sight of a cottonwood grove containing several large, dead standing trunks—perfect for B. confluenta.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

I searched for more than one hour without seeing the species, though I did find a few individuals of the related (and equally striking) B. rufipes on the trunks of the large, dead trees. Once that amount of time passes I’m no longer really expecting to see what I’m looking for, but suddenly there it was in all of its unmistakable glory! It would be the only individual seen despite another hour of searching, but it still felt good for the first beetle of the trip to be one I’d been looking for more than 30 years!

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta, on large, dead Populus deltoides trunk | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

Buprestis confluenta, on the trunk of a large, dead cottonwood (Populus deltoides) | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

I usually wait until near the end of a collecting trip to take the requisite selfie, but on this trip I was sporting new headgear and anxious to document its maiden voyage. My previous headgear of choice, a vintage Mambosok (impossible to get now), finally disintegrated after 20 years of field use, and on the way out-of-town I picked up a genuine Buff® do-rag. I know many collectors prefer a brim, but I don’t like they way brims limit my field of vision or get in the way when I’m using a camera. Besides, I’m usually looking down on the ground or on vegetation, so sun on my face is not a big issue. And do I be stylin’ or wut?

A "selfie" makes the trip official.

A “selfie” makes the trip official.

We made it to our first locality in southeast Colorado by noon the next day—the vast, dry grasslands north of Las Animas. Jeff had collected a blister beetle of interest here on an earlier trip, but as I looked out across the desolate landscape I wondered what on Earth I could find here that would be even remotely interesting to me.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Letting Jeff have some time to look for his blister beetle, I started down the roadside and after a short time found a live female Prionus sp. (later determined to represent P. integer). The only female Prionus I had ever collected before was P. heroicus, a giant species out in Arizona, and that was almost 30 years ago, so I wasn’t immediately sure what it was. Eventually I decided it must be Prionus, and a quick stop to kick the dirt while Jeff looked for his beetle turned into an intense search for more Prionus that surely were there. I did find two male carcasses shortly thereafter, and then nothing more was seen for the next hour or so.

Prionus integer male | Bent Co., Colorado

Prionus integer male (found dead) | Bent Co., Colorado

During the time that I was searching, however, I started noticing strange burrows in the ground. I excavated a few—they were shallow but contained nothing. Nevertheless, they matched the size of the beetles perfectly—surely there was a connection?

Prionus integer adult burrow.

Prionus integer adult burrow.

I wondered if Jeff knew about the beetles occurring here, but when I showed him what I had found the surprised look on his face told me this was not the case. I showed him the burrows, and we both agreed they had to be connected. I got the shovel out of the truck and walked back to the area where I had seen the live female, then sunk the shovel deep into the ground next to one of the burrows and pried up a chuck of the soil containing the burrow in its entirety. As we broke apart the soil another female was revealed, and we immediately decided to set out some traps baited with prionic acid lures. We expected the beetles to become active during dusk, so we went into town to get something to eat and then check out another nearby locality before returning to the site at dusk. While we were gone it rained heavily at the site, so we weren’t sure if or how this would affect beetle activity and their possible attraction to the traps. However, as we approached the site (slipping and sliding on the muddy 2-track), we could actually see beetles crawling on the road from afar. What we found when we got out of the car was nothing short of mind-blowing—the beetles were everywhere, crawling on the road, crawling through the grass, and overflowing in the flooded traps! The vast majority were males, as expected, but we also found a fair number of the much more rarely collected females. This was significant, as the chance to observe mating and oviposition behavior made the encounter far more informative than if we had only found and collected the much more numerous males.

Prionus integer mating pair.

Prionus integer mating pair.

The following day we headed south into northeastern New Mexico to look at some shortgrass prairie sites near Gladstone (Union Co.) where two species of Prionus had been collected in recent years: P. fissicornis (the lone member of the subgenus Antennalia) and P. emarginatus (one of eight species in the poorly known subgenus Homaesthesis, found primarily in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains). Fresh off of our experience the previous day, we were on the lookout for any suspicious looking “burrows” as we checked the roadsides at several spots in the area but found nothing, and while a few blister beetles piqued the interest of Jeff at one site, the complete absence of woody vegetation or flowering plants in general in the stark grassland landscape made the chances of me finding any other woodboring beetles remote. Eventually I became distracted by the lizards that darted through the vegetation around us, including this lesser earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata) and a collared lizard (better photos of both forthcoming).

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Despite no clues to suggest that Prionus beetles were active in the area, we set out some traps at two sites with soil exposures that seemed similar to those seen the day before. As Jeff set the last pair of traps in place, my distraction with saurian subjects continued with a dusty hognose snake (Heterodon nasicus gloydi). While photographing the animal I looked down to my side, and what did I see but a male Prionus fissicornis crawling through the vegetation! I called out to Jeff, and for the next half an hour or so we scoured the surrounding area in a failed attempt to find more. We would not be back until the next morning to check the traps, so our curiosity about how abundant the beetles might be would have to wait another 18 hours. We cast an eye towards the north and watched late afternoon thunderstorms roll across the expansive landscape and decided to check out the habitat in nearby Mills Rim.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

The rocky terrain with oak/pine/juniper woodlands at Mills Rim was a dramatic contrast to the gently rolling grasslands of the surrounding areas. We came here mostly out of curiosity, without any specific goal, but almost immediately after getting out of the car a huge Prionus male flew up to us—almost surely attracted by the scent of the lures we were carrying. Within a few minutes another male flew in, and then another. Because of their huge size and occurrence within oak woodland habitat, we concluded they must represent P. heroicus, more commonly encountered in the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona. We stuck around to collect a few more, but as dusk approached we returned to the surrounding grasslands to set out some lures to see if we could attract other Prionus species. The frontal system that had waved across the landscape during the afternoon had left in its wake textured layers of clouds, producing spectacular colors as the sun sank inexorably below the horizon.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

This attempt to collect grassland Prionus beetles would not be successful, and as dusk progressed we became distracted collecting cactus beetles (Moneilema sp., family Cerambycidae) from prickly pear cactus plants (Opuntia sp.) before darkness ended our day’s efforts. This did not mean, however, that all of our efforts were done—there are still night active insects, and in the Great Plains what better nocturnal insect to look for than North America’s largest tiger beetle, the Great Plains giant tiger beetle (Amblycheila cylindriformis, family Cicindelidae—or subfamily Cicindelinae—or supertribe Cicindelitae, depending on who you talk to)?! We kept our eyes on the headlamp illuminated 2-track as we drove back to the highway and then turned down another road that led into promising looking habitat. Within a half-mile of the highway we saw one, so I got out to pick it up and then started walking. I walked another half-mile or so on the road but didn’t see anything except a few Eleodes darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae), then turned around and walked the habitat alongside the road on the way back. As I walked, tiny little rodents—looking like a cross between a mouse and a vole—flashed in and out of my headlight beam as they hopped and scurried through the vegetation in front of me. Most fled frantically in response to my attempted approach, but one, for some reason, froze long enough under my lamp to allow me this one photo. When I posted the photo on my Facebook page, opinions on its identity ranged from kangaroo rat (Dipodomys sp.) silky pocket mouse (Perognathus flavus) to jumping mouse (Zapus sp.). Beats me.

silky pocket mouse? Zapus sp., jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Kangaroo rat? Silky pocket mouse? Jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Almost as if by command, it rained during the early evening hours where we had set the traps, and the following morning we were rewarded with traps brimming with Prionus fissicornis males. Not only were the traps full, but males were still running around in the vicinity, and we even found a few females, one of which was in the act of ovipositing into the soil at the base of a plant.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Eventually P. fissicornis activity subsided, and we decided to go back to the area around Mills Rim to see what beetles we might find in the woodland habitats. We also still were not sure about the Prionus beetles we had collected there the previous day and whether they truly represented P. heroicus. The scrubby oaks and conifers screamed “Beat me!”, and doing so proved extraordinarily productive, with at least a half-dozen species of jewel beetles collected—including a nice series of a rather large Chrysobothris sp. from the oaks that I do not recognize and a single specimen of the uncommonly collected Phaenops piniedulis off of the pines.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Not only is the scenery at Mills Rim Campground beyond spectacular, it also boasts some of the most adoringly cute reptiles known to man—such as this delightfully spiky horned lizard (I prefer the more colloquial name “horny toad”!). I’m probably going to regret not having photographed this fine specimen with the big camera.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Fresh diggings beside a rock always invite a peek inside. You never know who might be peeking out.

Who's home?

Who’s home?

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!

The trip having reached the halfway point, we debated whether to continue further south to the sand dunes of southern New Mexico (with its consequential solid two-day drive back to Wichita) or turn back north and have the ability to collect our way back. We chose the latter, primarily because we had not yet had a chance to explore the area around Vogel Canyon south of Las Animas, Colorado. We had actually planned to visit this area on the day we encountered P. integer in the shortgrass prairie north of town, and a quick visit before going back to check the traps that evening showed that the area had apparently experienced good rains as shown by the cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata) in full bloom.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Whenever I see cholla plants I can’t help myself—I have to look for cactus beetles (Moneilema spp.). It had rained even more since our previous visit a few days ago, and accordingly insects were much more abundant. Several Moneilema adults were seen on the cholla, one of which I spent a good bit of time photographing. The iPhone photo below is just a preview of the photos I got with the big camera (which also included some very impressive-sized cicadas—both singing males and ovipositing females). The cactus spines impaled in the camera’s flash control unit serve as a fitting testament to the hazards of photographing cactus insects!

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

Later in the afternoon we hiked down into the canyon itself, and while insects were active we didn’t find much out of the ordinary. We did observe some petroglyphs on the sandstone walls of the canyon dating from the 1200s to the 1700s—all, sadly, defaced by vandals. Despite the rather uninspiring collecting, we stayed in the area for two reasons: 1) Jeff wanted to setup blacklights at the canyon head in hopes of collecting a blister beetle that had been caught there on an earlier trip, and 2) I had noted numerous Amblycheila larval burrows in the area (and even fished out a very large larva from one of them) and wanted to search the area at night to see if I could find adults. Jeff was not successful in his goal, and for a time I thought I would also not succeed in mine until we closed up shop and started driving the road out of the canyon. By then it was after 11 p.m. and we managed to find about a half-dozen A. cylindriformis adults. This was now the third time that I’ve found adults of this species, and interestingly all three times I’ve not seen any beetles despite intense searching until after 11 p.m and up until around midnight.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

The next morning we found ourselves with two days left in the trip but several hundred miles west of Wichita, where I needed to drop Jeff off for his flight back home before I continued on home to St. Louis. I had hoped we could make it to the Glass Mountains just east of the Oklahoma panhandle to see what Prionus species might be living in the shortgrass prairies there (and also to show Jeff this remarkable place where I’ve found several new state records over the past few years). As we headed in that direction, I realized our path would take us near Black Mesa at the western tip of the Oklahoma pandhandle, and having been skunked on my first visit to the area last year due to dry conditions but nevertheless intrigued by its very un-Oklahoma terrain and habitat I suggested we stop by the area and have a look around before continuing on to the Glass Mountains. We arrived in the area mid-afternoon and headed straight for a rock outcropping colonized by scrub oak (Quercus sp.) and pinyon pine (Pinus sp.)—very unusual for western Oklahoma—that I had found during my previous trip.

The author looks pensively out over the Black Mesa landscape.

The area around Black Mesa couldn’t be more unlike the perception that most people have of Oklahoma.

I wanted to beat the oaks for buprestids—surely there would be a state record or two just sitting there waiting for me to find them, but as I started walking from the car towards the oaks the approach of a loud buzz caught my attention. I turned around to see—would you believe—a large Prionus beetle circling the air around me and was fortunate to net it despite its fast and agile flight. I hurried back to the car to show Jeff what I had found; we looked at each other and said, “Let’s collect here for a while.” The beetle had apparently been attracted to the lures in the car, so we got them out, set them up with some traps, and went about beating the oaks and watching for beetles to fly to the lure. Sadly, no  jewel beetles were collected on the oaks, although I did find evidence of their larval workings in some dead branches (which were promptly collected for rearing). Every once in a while, however, a Prionus beetle would fly in, apparently attracted to the lure but, curiously, never flying directly to it and falling into the trap. Many times they would land nearby and crawl through the vegetation as if searching but never actually find the trap. However, just as often they would approach the trap in flight and not land, but rather continue circling around in the air for a short time and before suddenly turning and flying away (forcing me to watch forlornly as they disappeared in the distance). Based on their very large size, blackish coloration and broad pronotum, we surmised (and later confirmed) these must also be P. heroicus, despite thinking (and later confirming) that the species was not known as far east as Oklahoma. Not only had we found a new state record, but we had also recorded a significant eastern range extension for the species. And to think that we only came to Black Mesa because I wanted to beat the oaks!

Prionus heroicus male

Prionus heroicus male

Bite from Prionus heroicus male.

Proof that Prionus heroicus males can bite hard enough to draw blood!

We each collected a nice series of the beetles, and despite never witnessing the beetles actually going to the traps a few more were found in the traps the next morning after spending the night in a local bed & breakfast. I also found a dove’s nest with two eggs hidden in the vegetation, and as we were arranging for our room at the bed & breakfast a fellow drove up and dropped off a freshly quarried dinosaur footprint (the sandstone, mudstone, and shale deposits around Black Mesa are the same dinosaur fossil bearing deposits made more famous at places like Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument).

Dove's nest w/ eggs.

Dove’s nest w/ eggs.

Dinosaur fossil footprint

Freshly quarried dinosaur fossil footprint

By the way, if you ever visit the area, the Hitching Post at Black Mesa is a great place to stay. A longhorn skull on the barn above an authentic 1882 stagecoach give a hint at the ambiance, and breakfast was almost as good as what my wife Lynne can do (almost! :) ).

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

132-year-old stagecoach - model!

132-year-old stagecoach – model!

After breakfast we contemplated the long drive that lay between us and our arrival in Wichita that evening—our longer than expected stay in the area had virtually eliminated the possibility to collect in the Glass Mountains. Nevertheless, there was one more thing that I wanted to see before we left—the dinosaur footprints laying in a trackway along Carrizo Creek north of the mesa. I only knew they were in the area based on a note on a map, but as there were no signs our attempt to find them the previous day was not successful. Armed with detailed directions from the B&B owners, however, we decided to give it one more shot. Again, even after we found the site I didn’t see them immediately, I suppose because I was expecting to see distinct depressions in dry, solid rock. Only after the reflections of light from an alternating series of small puddles—each measuring a good 10–12″ in diameter—did I realize we had found them. Recent rains had left the normally dry creek bed filled with mud, with the footprints themselves still filled with water.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

It is not surprising that I would be so excited to find the tracks, but what did surprise me was the effect they had on me. Seeing the actual signs of near mythical beasts that lived an incomprehensible 100 million years ago invites contemplation and reminds us that our time here on Earth has, indeed, been short!

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

By this time, we had no choice but to succumb to the long drive ahead. We did manage to carve out a short stop at the very first locality of the trip in an effort to find more Buprestis confluens (finding only a few more B. rufipes), but otherwise the day was spent adhering to our goal of reaching Wichita before nightfall. Jeff was home and sipping tea before lunchtime the next day, while I endured one more solid day of driving before making it back to St. Louis in time for dinner with the family. At that point, the trip already could have been considered a success, but how successful it ultimately ends up being depends on what beetles emerge during the next season or two from these batches of infested wood that I collected at the various spots we visited.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

If you like this Collecting Trip iReport, you might also like the iReports that I posted for my 2013 Oklahoma and 2013 Great Basin collecting trips as well.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Aves, Buprestidae, Cactaceae, Cerambycidae, Coleoptera, Dinosauria, Mammalia, Reptilia, Salicaceae | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Sunset beetles

Acmaeodera immaculata? | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado.

Acmaeodera immaculata? (family Buprestidae) | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am fond of natural sky backgrounds for insects found during the day on flowers and foliage. Not only does the sky provide a clean, uncluttered background that allows the subject to stand out, it also gives the photo a more appropriate temporal flavor—i.e., photographs of diurnal insects should look like they were taken during the day. It’s a little bit tricky setting the camera to allow flash illumination of the subject while still allowing the sky to register as well, but I find such photographs more pleasing and interesting than those with a jet-black background, typical in flash macrophotography, and far more pleasing than those with a jumble of sticks and weeds cluttered behind the subject. These days my daytime insect photos almost always incorporate a blue-sky background (examples here and here) unless: 1) I actually photographed the subject at night (examples here and here); or 2) I wish to highlight an intensely white or delicately structured subject (examples here and here).

Aulicus sp. | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma

Trichodes oresterus? (family Cleridae) | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma

But what about in between day and night—specifically, sunset? Incorporating a sunset sky into a flash-illuminated macrophotograph is even trickier than incorporating a blue midday sky because the central problem—low light levels—is magnified. Blue sky photographs challenge the fast shutter speeds and high f-stops usually needed for macrophotographs, but relatively minor adjustments to ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop are usually sufficient to allow the sky to register while still being able to maintain depth of field and minimize motion blur. At sunset, however, because there is much less illumination of the sky, more aggressive settings are often required to allow the sky to register on the camera sensor—settings that can sometimes result in too much motion blur or insufficient depth of field. These problems can be mitigated to some degree with the use of a tripod (and very cooperative subjects), but for dedicated “hand-held” enthusiasts like myself this is not an option. Why bother? Because the results can be spectacular! The setting sun often creates stunning colors not seen at other times of the day and offer a change of pace from blue skies, which, like black backgrounds, can start looking rather monotonous if used exclusively in one’s portfolio.

Linsleya convexa | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado

Linsleya convexa (family Meloidae) | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado

The photos featured in this post were taken during several sunsets on a trip earlier this past summer through Colorado and Oklahoma. I especially like the jewel beetle (Acmaeodera immaculata?) photograph—technically it has good focus and depth of field and a pleasing composition, but I really like the color coordination between the beetle, flower, and sky. The checkered beetle (Trichodes oresterus?) photograph is also very pleasing, especially the detail on the beetle, although the color of the sky is only somewhat different than a more typical daytime blue. The blister beetle (Linsleya convexa) photograph is probably the most problematic technically due to slight motion blur and being slightly off-focus at the eye—not surprising since of the three this photo had the lowest light conditions. However, the color contrast between the sky and subject make this a nevertheless striking image.

If you have experience with ambient light backgrounds in flash macrophotography, your comments on approaches you’ve taken to deal with reduced light situations will be most welcome.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Buprestidae, Cleridae, Coleoptera, Meloidae | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments