Redux: Now you see me…

Chalcophora virginiensis

Chalcophora virginiensis (Drury, 1770) | vic. Calico Rock, Arkansas

…now you don’t!

Chalcophora virginiensis

Chalcophora virginiensis (Drury, 1770) | vic. Calico Rock, Arkansas

Chalcophora virginiensis (Drury, 1770) is the largest jewel beetle (family Buprestidae) in eastern North America. This beetle is also known as the “sculptured pine borer”, and its easy to see why—its hyper-sculptured, shiny metallic body glitters like a jewel in the sunlight! This feature is typical of many species in the family and, in fact, is the source of the family’s other common name—metallic wood boring beetles.

Such dramatic sculpturing and coloration makes cabinets of jewel beetle specimens among the most beautiful in any museum, and for those who have only seen these beetles as pinned specimens in cabinets it can be hard to imagine what purpose such appearance serves. In its native habitat, however, on native host plants, the reason becomes clear. Rather than conspicuous and easily seen, such coloration actually helps the beetle to blend in with its environment and become almost invisible. Measuring well over an inch in length and possessing no other way of defending itself by biting, stinging, or even just tasting bad, these beetles would be a more than healthy snack for almost any avian or reptilian predator, and going about their activities during the day right under the noses of all these visually based predators makes finding mates and oviposition sites an even riskier proposition. For them, the best way to beat a visual predator is to become… invisible! The two photos above show just how dramatic a difference the substrate plays in allowing these beetles to practice their disappearing act. Land on the trunk of a dead or dying pine tree, its aged bark flaked and graying, and the sculpturing and coloration are a perfect match. Land, however, on a healthy tree, its resin-filled bark bright and full of color, and it suddenly becomes a sitting duck. It’s in the beetle’s best interest to be good at telling the difference between thrifty and unhealthy trees, which they do by “smelling” volatile chemicals emitted by trees under stress.

Those interested in more information on this species and its close relatives may wish to consult the recent review of the genus in North America by Maier & Ivie (2014) (see my review of this excellent paper here).

REFERENCE:

Maier, C. A. & M. A. Ivie. 2013. Reevaluation of Chalcophora angulicollis (LeConte) and Chalcophora virginiensis (Drury) with a review and key to the North American species of Chalcophora Dejean (Coleoptera: Buprestidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 67(4):457–469 [abstract].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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

Spring beetles on Coreopsis flowers

Abby Lee, Ryan Fairbanks, Stephen Penn atop a rhyolite glades

The WGNSS Entomology Group takes in the view of rhyolite glades from atop Hughes Mountain.

Each spring the Entomology Group of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society takes a field trip to one of the many natural areas outside of the St. Louis area. This year the destination was Hughes Mountain Natural Area, about 75 miles SSW of St. Louis in Washington Co. I especially looked forward to going there this spring, as my last visit to the area was close to 20 years ago. Despite the long absence, I vividly recalled the spectacular vistas from atop the mountain of rhyolite and the diversity of unique plants and insects in the igneous glades that flanked its slopes. When we arrived, we found the glades ablaze with spring wildflowers in full bloom, the most prominent of which was lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). As one of the so-called “yellow composites”, coreopsis is a favored source of pollen and nectar for a variety of insects, including beetles and especially the jewel beetles that I find so interesting.

Acmaeodera neglecta

Acmaeodera neglecta Fall, 1899

Species in the genus Acmaeodera are incredibly diverse in the southwestern U.S. (nearly half of the ~150 species/subspecies known from the U.S. occur in Arizona), where they are usually encountered on a variety of flowers. It is my opinion that the adult beetles mimic small bees, especially in flight by virtue of their fused elytra that do not separate during flight as in most other beetles and thus results in a profile resembling that of a small sweat bee (family Halictidae). The diversity of Acmaeodera drops off considerably in the eastern U.S., with only three species occurring broadly in the area. Missouri is a bit luckier than most eastern states, as two additional species found primarily in the south-central U.S. also occur here (MacRae 1991). One of these is Acmaeodera neglecta Fall, 1899. This tiny species (adults measure only 4–6 mm in length) is very similar to the much more common and widespread A. tubulus (Fabricius, 1801) (see photos here), and in fact its resemblance to that species is so great that it remained unreported from Missouri until Nelson (1987) recognized it among material that I had collected and sent to him during my early collecting days. Acmaeodera neglecta can be distinguished from A. tubulus by the elytra with slightly larger punctures and duller surface and the spots usually longitudinally coalesced into an irregular “C”-shaped marking on each side. I find this species most often in glade habitats.

Acmaeodera ornata

Acmaeodera ornata (Fabricius, 1775)

Acmaeodera ornata (Fabricius, 1775) is more widespread than A. neglecta (although not nearly so commonly encountered as A. tubulus). This handsome species is distinctly larger than A. tubulus and A. neglecta, usually around 8-11 mm in length, and has a broader, more flattened appearance with a distinct triangular depression on the pronotum. The elytra have a bluish cast rather than the bronzy sheen of A. tubulus and A. neglecta, and the spots on the elytra are smaller, more numerous, and more of a creamy rather than yellow color. No other species in the eastern U.S. can be confused with it, although there is a very similar species (A. ornatoides Barr, 1972) that occurs in Oklahoma and Texas. I have encountered this species numerous times on a variety of flowers in Missouri but have never managed to rear it, and in fact larval hosts remain unknown with the exception of one very old (and unreliable) report of the species breeding in hickory (Carya) and black-locust (Robinia).

Valgus canaliculatus

Valgus canaliculatus (Olivier, 1789)

As a general rule, beetles in the family Scarabaeidae don’t visit flowers—species in the subfamily Cetoniinae being a significant exception. This tiny representative of the subfamily, Valgus canaliculatus (Olivier, 1789), is no larger than the Acmaeodera neglecta adult above by length, although the body is broader and strongly flattened. This species is a representative of the tribe Valgini, one of only two tribes in the family that possess dorsal and ventral scale-like setae (the unrelated tribe Hopliini, or monkey beetles, being the other) (Jameson & Swoboda 2005). It has been suggested that the setae might play a role in crysis or adaptive coloration, and even more interesting is the association of most New World species with termites. Eggs are laid in termite galleries and the larvae feed on the wood within the galleries, but it remains unclear whether the termophily is obligatory or the beetles are simply taking advantage of the stable environment and accessible food source offered by termite colonies. Like other species in the subfamily, the adults are fond of flowers; however, only male valgines visit flowers, using specially modified, brush-like mouthparts to lap up nectar. As far as has been determined, the males do not feed on pollen.

Valgus canaliculatus

Note the flattened, scale-like setae covering both the dorsal and ventral surfaces as well as the legs.

REFERENCES:

Fall, H. C.  1899. Synonpsis of the species of Acmaeodera of America, north of Mexico. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 7(1):1–37 [pdf].

Jameson, M. L. & K. A. Swoboda. 2005. Synopsis of scarab beetle tribe Valgini (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Cetoniinae) in the New World. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 98(5):658–672 [pdf].

MacRae, T. C. 1991. The Buprestidae (Coleoptera) of Missouri. Insecta Mundi5(2):101–126 [pdf].

Nelson, G. H. 1987. Additional notes on the biology and distribution of Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North America, II.   The Coleopterists Bulletin 41(1):57–65 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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A cicada that snaps, crackles, and pops!

Last summer during a collecting trip through the western Great Plains, field partner Jeff Huether and I made a quick stop in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just a few miles north of the Colorado/New Mexico state line. Most of the woody vegetation turned out to be New Mexico locust (Robinia neomexicana), which can be a good host for certain species of jewel beetles and longhorned beetles, and since it was mid-late June the timing was also right (assuming there had been good rains in the area). We began beating branches, picking up regular numbers of small longhorned beetles in the genus Sternidius and jewel beetles in the genus Agrilus—nothing unexpected. As I was beating I happened to notice a cicada sitting in a branch in a nearby tree. Usually I don’t see cicadas until they take flight after I unknowingly approach them—more often than not also letting out a metallic screech as they take flight if they are male, and even if I do see them beforehand I rarely am able to get close enough to attempt capture, much less photography. Perhaps the morning temps still had not risen to a point sufficient for the more active behaviors with which cicadas are usually associated.

Platypedia putnami

Platypedia putnami | Las Animas Co., Colorado

The slender, hairy, black body, orange highlights and pronotal collar, and black eyes identify this as a member of the genus Platypedia, and while the genus is large—21 species and four subspecies in western North America (Sanborn & Phillips 2013), its gestalt and occurrence in south-central Colorado make P. putnami the likely choice. Cicadas, of course, are famous for their singing abilities, which is most commonly accomplished through the use of structures at the base of the male abdomen called timbals (or ‘tymbals’). These paired, ribbed membranes make a loud click when buckled, and the male uses musculature to rapidly and rhythmically buckle/unbuckle the timbals to produce their characteristic song (Young & Bennet-Clark 1995). Cicadas of the genus Platypedia, however, belong to a group of genera that have lost the ability to produce sound through timbal organs, instead communicating through an alternate mechanism of sound production called crepitation where the wings are snapped together above the body or banged against the body or on vegetation (Sanborn and Phillips 1999). (Think of the snapping sound that some grasshoppers make as they fly, which is produced by the same mechanism.) You can hear the sound (I can’t really call it a ‘song’) and see a collection of videos of these cicadas at Cicada Mania.

Of course, replacement of one sound production mechanism by another begs the question—is there a selective advantage to sound production by crepitation over timbals? The fact that females also produce sound by crepitation hints at one possible advantage—2-way communication between males and females may provide another mechanism for minimizing the chance of interspecies mate selection, in contrast to the one-way communication (from males to females) that occurs in species that use timbal organs. It is also possible that crepitation is metabolically more efficient than timbal singing, although experimental comparisons of the energetic cost of crepitation versus timbal singing in cicadas are lacking (Sanborn & Phillips 1999).

REFERENCES:

Sanborn, A. F. & P. K. Phillips. 1999. Analysis of acoustic signals produced by the cicada Platypedia putnami variety lutea (Homoptera: Tibicinidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 92:451–455 [pdf].

Sanborn, A. F. & P. K. Phillips. 2013. Biogeography of the cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) of North America, north of Mexico. Diversity 5(2):166–239 [abstractpdf].

Young, D. & H. C. Bennet-Clark. 1995. The role of the tymbal in cicada sound production. The Journal of Experimental Biology 198:1001–1019 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

Posted in Cicadidae, Hemiptera | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why is this male carrion beetle “biting” one of the female’s antennae?

American carrion beetles (Necrophila americana) aggregating at sap flow on the trunk of an oak (Quercus sp.) tree.

American carrion beetles (Necrophila americana) aggregation at sap flow on trunk of oak (Quercus sp.) tree.

Earlier this spring I came upon an interesting aggregation of insects at a sap flow at the base of the trunk of a large oak (Quercus sp.) tree. Sap flows are famous for the diversity of insects that are attracted to them (e.g., see my previous post, Party on a pin oak), although the mix of species present can vary from sap flow to sap flow. In this case, the majority of insects present were American carrion beetles (Necrophila americana)¹ (order Coleoptera, family Silphidae), a species encountered much more often on animal carcasses (in fact, the genus name literally translates to “attracted to corpses“) but also occasionally attracted to sap flows (Evans 2014). This is not surprising to me, as I have seen adults regularly in the fermenting bait traps (Champlain & Knull 1932) that I have set out over the years (although I have been unable to find any reference to such attraction in the literature). I had never seen such an aggregation of these beetles before or even yet had the chance to photograph them (although I have photographed its Ceti Eel-like larva), so I paused to setup the camera and take a few photographs.

¹ Not to be confused with the federally endangered American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus).

Necrophila americana mating pair.

Necrophila americana mating pair.

Among the many single adults present was a mating pair, which I selected as my subjects. As I was photographing the pair, I noticed the male had a firm grasp of one of the female’s antennae within his mandibles. As I watched them through the lens, I saw the male suddenly release his hold of the female’s antenna, move backward on top of her, and begin using his own antennae to stroke her pronotum (sadly I was unable to snap a photograph at that time). As suddenly as he had released it, the male moved forward and grabbed hold of the female’s antenna once again. It seemed unlikely to me that this represented an act of aggression, but instead must be an important part of their courtship behavior. The female, for her part, did not seem to be bothered too much by the grasping and continued to slowly lumber about around the sap flow as the male went through his routine under my voyeuristic watch.

The male has a firm grasp of the female's antenna.

The male has a firm grasp of the female’s antenna.

Intrigued by this behavior, I searched for other photos of mating/coupled carrion beetles—easy to do considering the many pages of photographs of this species at BugGuide. While the great majority of those photos are of individual beetles, I found this photo and this one of coupled pairs, each also clearly showing the male firmly grasping one of the female’s antennae with his mandibles. Neither photo makes mention of the antennal grasping, but a little further searching did turn up this YouTube video of coupled American carrion beetles, again clearly showing the male grasping of the female’s antenna and even leading the videographer to comment, “Disturbingly, it even appears that this male is threatening to lop off the female’s left antenna if she refuses to mate!” Of course, retribution seems not to be a common behavior among insects, and in looking into this further I found a short note by Anderson (1989) in which the behavior is recorded not only for N. americana but also another silphid, Oiceoptoma noveboracense. Apparently mating actually occurred during the time the male had released his hold of the female’s antenna and was stroking her pronotum with his antennae. He further noted that the antennal grasping behavior continues until eggs and larvae are present at a carcass, at which time it is no longer observed. This suggests that the behavior represents an especially proactive form of “mate guarding” by which males actively ensure their paternity of the offspring of the particular female with which they were mating.

REFERENCES:

Anderson, R. S. 1989. Potential phylogenetic utility of mating behavior in some carrion beetles (Coleoptera: Silphidae: Silphinae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 43(1):18 [pdf].

Champlain, A. B. & J. N. Knull. 1932. Fermenting bait traps for trapping Elateridae and Cerambycidae (Coleop.). Entomological News 43(10):253–257.

Evans, A. V. 2014. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 560 pp. [Google Books].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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

Multiple Megarhyssa males

Today while hiking at Hilda Young Conservation Area (north-central Jefferson County, Missouri), I encountered a declining sugar maple (Acer saccharum) with lots of woodboring insect holes in the trunk. As I approached I noticed numerous giant ichneumon wasps in the genus Megarhyssa flying about the trunk and resting on its surface. Giant ichneumons belong to the family Ichneumonidae and are, as the name suggests, the largest members of the family in North America. Interestingly, all of the wasps that I initially saw were males. I have never seen male giant ichneumon wasps before, and certainly not in such numbers, so this was quite exciting. We have two species of giant ichneumons here in Missouri—M. atrata and M. macrurus, the females of which I have seen only rarely, but I couldn’t immediately decide which of these two species the males represented. I looked up higher on the trunk, and there I saw a female M. macrurus in the act of oviposition, so I decided that the males must also represent this species. However, one of the males was smaller and differently colored than the others, having more brown than black on the body and the wings clear with a well developed spot on the costal margin. The other males were noticeably larger and had more black than brown on the body and the wings smoky with only a narrow spot on the costal margin. After a little bit of digging, I know believe that the smaller male is also M. macrurus—the same species as the ovipositing female, while the larger males all represent the larger species M. atrata.

Megarhyssa macrurus (male) | Hilda Young Conservation Area, Jefferson Co., Missouri

Megarhyssa macrurus (male) | Hilda Young Conservation Area, Jefferson Co., Missouri

Megarhyssa atrata (male) | Hilda Young Conservation Area, Jefferson Co., Missouri

Megarhyssa atrata (male) | Hilda Young Conservation Area, Jefferson Co., Missouri

As I watched the males that had landed on the trunk of the tree, I observed both the M. macrurus male and one of the M. atrata males to bend their abdomen forward beneath their body rub the tip of the abdomen against the bark, a behavior called “tergal stroking”, and at times inserted the tip of the abdomen into cracks in the bark in an almost prehensile-looking manner. These behaviors belong to a suite of behaviors exhibited by male Megarhyssa aggregations. Previously thought to be function in early insemination of as-yet-unemerged females, the precise function of these behaviors remains unknown but seems somehow related to enabling sex discrimination of emerging wasps and/or increasing the rate at which virgin females are encountered (Matthews et al. 1979).

All species of Megarhyssa parasitize the woodboring larvae of Pigeon horntails (Tremex columba) (order Hymenoptera, family Siricidae), which the females reach by inserting their long, thin ovipositor deep into the wood where the horntail larvae live. Multiple species of giant ichneumons occurring in the same area at the same time and utilizing the same resource seems to violate a basic ecological concept; the competitive exclusion principle, which states that two species competing for the same resource cannot coexist at constant population values because one species will always eventually outcompete the other. In the case of Megarhyssa, it seems that size differences between the species allow them to share a common resource (horntail larvae), as females of the larger M. atrata have longer ovipositors than the smaller M. macrurus, thus allowing them to penetrate deeper into the wood to parasitize horntail larvae that M. macrurus females cannot reach. By the same token, M. macrurus females tend to parasitize horntail larvae tunnel at shallower depths and that tend not to be utilized by M. atrata females.

REFERENCE:

Matthews, R. W., J. R. Matthews & O. Crankshaw. 1979. Aggregation in male parasitic wasps of the genus Megarhyssa: I. Sexual discrimination, tergal stroking behavior, and description of associated anal structures behavior. The Florida Entomologist 62(1):3–8 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

Posted in Hymenoptera, Ichneumonidae | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A little extra cash

Earlier this month the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) sponsored their second Nature Photo Contest. I’ve been a member of this group since I first moved to St. Louis after college in the early 1980s—primarily as a participant in the Entomology Natural History Group but for the past six years also as board member and editor of the Society’s newsletter, Nature Notes. The photo contest was run much like the first one in 2013, again with nice cash prizes for the winners, except two things: 1) the categories were a little different (see below), and 2) I was tapped to be one of the three judges in the two categories that I did not submit photos. The categories were:

  • Invertebrates
  • Vertebrates
  • Plants & Fungi
  • Natural Communities
  • Seasons

I submitted two photos each to the first three categories—the maximum allowed in both cases. One limitation for me was that the photographs had to be taken in Missouri or an adjacent state. Remarkably, during the past few years I’ve taken most of my photos in places further afield—primarily in the western U.S. in states such as California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. I have many photographs from earlier years, but frankly I don’t consider much of that body of work to be photo contest worthy. Still, I was able to come up with a few more recent photographs that I thought would be competitive.

How did it go for me? Pretty good, with two of my photos taking cash-winning prizes (see below). This may not be as good as I did last time, when I won one 1st place, one 2nd place, and one 3rd place—the last of these also voted by the audience as the Grand Prize winner. Nevertheless, the cash award is much welcomed and will be put to good use. Remarkably, it turns out that two winning photographs have never been posted at this site, so here they are:


3rd Place—Vertebrates

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis | Ozark Trail, Wappapello Section, Wayne Co., Missouri

The judges regarded that it represents the true “essence” of a snake. Technically they liked the position of and focus on the tongue, the contrasting red color working well in the composition, with the blurred, winding body of the snake adding depth in a cleaner fashion than a cluttered jumble of leaves. I can’t tell you how many shots I took hoping to get one with the tongue in the perfect position—knowing all along that at any moment the snake could stop flicking it or decide to make a run for it


2nd Place—Plants & Fungi

Dicentra cucullaria

Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria | Battle of Athens State Park, Clark Co., Missouri

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to hear the judges’ feedback regarded this photo, as I was busy judging the photos in the ‘Natural Communities’ and ‘Seasons’ categories. This photo also took many shots, even though I didn’t have to worry about the subject not cooperating. Flash on white is tricky—not enough and you don’t get the stark contrast with the black background; too much and you end up blowing the highlights and losing the delicate detail. Add to that trying to get the subject perfectly symmetrical within the frame (I wanted to achieve this ‘for real’ and not through subsequent cropping), and I probably took close to two dozen shots before I felt like I had it right.

Perhaps you noticed that neither of the photos were in the ‘Invertebrates’ category. This just goes to show that the amount of interest in and effort one puts into a certain type of photography does not guarantee success—or prevent success in photographing other, less-familiar subjects. For my part I am pleased that any of my photographs were deemed good enough to receive a cash prize and thank WGNSS for giving local nature photographers the opportunity to have their work recognized and rewarded.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

Posted in Fumariaceae, Plantae, Reptilia, Vertebrata | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Cover Photo—The Coleopterists Bulletin 69(1)

cso69-1co14.indd

The March 2015 issue of The Coleopterists Bulletin (vol. 69, no. 1) is out now (I got mine yesterday), and while I’m always happy to see the latest issue of this journal in my mailbox I am especially pleased with this one because it features my photograph of an adult female Crossidius coralinus fulgidus on flowers of gray rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa). I photographed this beetle in September 2011 near Vernal, Utah at the beginning of a trip with Jeff Huether to find and photograph endemic sand dune tiger beetles across the western U.S. We had just visited the dunes near Maybell, Colorado and were on our way to Idaho to visit the St. Anthony and Bruneau Sand Dune systems before dropping south to Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah and the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. I was still a “Crossidius virgin” at that point—my first real Crossidius collecting trip would not come until two years later when Jeff and I visited the Great Basin and surrounding areas in a dedicated effort to find as many species/subspecies of Crossidius as possible (we succeeded in finding 12 of 14 targeted taxa). Having never seen C. coralinus before, you can imagine my excitement at seeing the spectacularly colored adults sitting atop flowers of their rabbitbrush host plants. I am especially fond of this photo, however, because it actually represents one of my earliest attempts to combine a natural blue sky background with a flash-illuminated subject—a technique I had learned from John Abbott just a few weeks earlier at the inagural BugShot Workshop in Gray Summit, Missouri (just 15 miles from my home). I didn’t quite get the shade of blue I was looking for in this particular shot, but it’s close enough and the subject depth-of-field couldn’t be better. I have worked a lot on this technique since then and now consider blue sky background as part of my signature style.

This is the third issue of The Coleopterists Bulletin to feature one of my photographs on the cover. The first was the June 2013 issue (vol. 67, no. 2), which featured a beautiful, metallic green weevil, Eurhinus cf. adonis (2nd photo) that I photographed on flowers of Chilean goldenrod (Solidago chilensis) in northern Argentina, and the very next issue (September 2013, vol. 67, no. 3) featured my photograph of Chrysobothris octocola on dead mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) in western Oklahoma (and a new state record).

If you’re not one already, consider becoming a member of The Coleopterists Society (I’ve been one for 33 years now!). Their flagship journal, The Coleopterists Bulletin, is your one-stop shop for all things beetley—a quarterly fix of pure elytral ecstacy! In addition to the latest issues of the journal, your membership also gives you online access to archives of past issues via JSTOR and BioOne.

© Ted C. MacRae

Posted in Buprestidae, Cerambycidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments