Agrilus fuscipennis may not be the largest or the prettiest member of the genus occurring in Missouri (that honor is reserved for Agrilus concinnus, or “hibiscus jewel beetle”—MacRae 2004). Nevertheless, it comes pretty darned close! Add to that the fact that it is among our most seldom encountered jewel beetles, and you can understand how excited I was to see this species on my sheet after beating a small persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tree last weekend at Hercules Glades Wilderness in the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri. In fact, I have only collected this species three times previously—all single specimens beaten from persimmon, and all back in the 1980s!
Jewel beetles are unquestionably popular among insect collectors, due no doubt in large part to their vivid, metallic colors. I think the family, however, would be even more popular were it not for the genus Agrilus. Fully one in five species of jewel beetles belongs to this genus, which at nearly 3,000 described species and counting (Bellamy 2008) is perhaps the largest genus in the entire animal kingdom. As might be expected, such hyperdiversity has resulted in taxonomic quagmire, with species limits difficult to define and many hardly distinguishable except by examination of male genitalia (MacRae 2003). Additionally, in contrast to the rest of the family which is generally recognized as containing some of the most spectacularly beautiful beetles in the world, the most species of Agrilus are small, usually less than 8 mm in length and often as small as only 4–5 mm, and also lack the vivid colors (at least, to the naked eye) for which the rest of the family is so noted.
Agrilus fuscipennis is one of several species that buck this general Agrilus theme. While not forming a discrete taxonomic group within the genus, they are all unified by the following characteristics: 1) relatively large for the genus (A. fuscipennis measures 12–14 mm length), 2) vivid red pronotum and black elytra, and 3) mine the lower trunks, crown and main roots of living rather than dead host plants. For A. fuscipennis the larval host is persimmon, and other similar species include A. vittaticollis on serviceberry (Amelanchier) and A. concinnus on wild hibiscus (Hibiscus). These other species also are not very commonly encountered, at least in my experience, perhaps partly because they are not as easily reared from their hosts as species that develop as larvae in dead wood (the latter can be easily reared by retrieving infested wood from the field and placing in containers to trap emerging adults).
In the interest of full disclosure, these photos were taken in the studio after returning home. Although the persimmon branch is real, the “blue sky” is actually just a colored index card. I prefer to photograph insects in the field, especially with insects such as tiger beetles where it is desirable to include elements of the insect’s natural habitat in the photograph. However, I don’t have a problem with studio photography if field photographs prove too difficult or time-consuming or present too high a risk of escape by a prize specimen. My normal protocol for the latter is to place the first individual in a vial and continue to search for another that I will then try to photograph in the field. If that doesn’t work then I still have the first individual as a backup for studio photographs. In the case of this beetle, I found it on the very first clump of persimmon that I beat but never saw another despite beating persimmon for the rest of the afternoon (just like the three I found separately back in the 80s)! I have plans to photograph A. concinnus later this summer on its Hibiscus host plant in southeastern Missouri—hopefully I will succeed in getting true field photographs of that species.
Bellamy, C. L. 2008. World catalogue and bibliography of the jewel beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestoidea), Volume 4: Agrilinae: Agrilina through Trachyini. Pensoft Series Faunistica 79:1–722.
MacRae, T. C. 1991. The Buprestidae (Coleoptera) of Missouri. Insecta Mundi 5(2):101–126.
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.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013