Cactus beetle redux!

Moneilema armatum LeConte, 1853 | Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado

Moneilema armatum LeConte, 1853 | Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado

On my most recent Great Plains collecting tripcactus dodger cicadas weren’t the only residents of the cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata) that studded the open grasslands in southeastern Colorado—cactus beetles (Moneilema spp.) also were found, though in lesser numbers than their frenetic, screeching neighbors (perhaps the reason for their scarcity?!). I’ve covered cactus beetles before, posing the question, “How do you photograph cactus beetles?” The answer was, of course, “Very carefully!” That is certainly true in most cases, but not all.

Moneilema armatum LeConte, 1853 | Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado

The clumsy, flightless adults rely on their host’s vicious spines for protection.

Cactus beetles are found almost exclusively on opuntioids (chollas and prickly pear cacti), and while most opuntioids are rather viciously spined the plants themselves vary tremendously in structure. Prickly pears (Opuntia spp.), on which I previously photographed these beetles, generally grow in low, dense clumps, their flattened pads often forming a tangle of well-armed hiding places for the beetles. Such is not the case with chollas, which are generally taller, more erect, and have a much more open structure of well spaced, cylindrical stems. The beetles on these plants still enjoy a great amount of protection by the long, barbed spines that cover the stems, but to entomologists/photographers like me they are still much more easily collected and photographed. In this particular case, no special techniques were needed to get nice close-up photos against a clear blue sky other than crouching down a bit and being careful not to lean too close to the plant. That is not to say, of course, that photographing insects on cholla is completely without risk, as this photo showing the spines impaled in my flash unit afterwards will attest (but better the flash unit than poking the lens!).

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

The cactus beetle in these photographs appears to be an armed cactus beetle, Moneilema armatum, by virtue of the small but distinct lateral spines on its pronotum, lack of pubescence on the elytra, and relatively smooth pronotum lacking large punctures except along the apical and basal margins. These shiny black beetles occur in the western Great Plains from Colorado and Kansas south through New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas into northern Mexico. Adults and larvae seem to prefer chollas over prickly pears—adults feeding on the surface and larvae tunneling within the stems. I suspect the adult feeding helps provide nutrition for egg maturation in addition to creating an oviposition site, and plants infested with larvae often appear unthrifty and exhibit black masses of hardened exudate along their stems (Woodruff 1966).

Hardened black masses of plant exudate indicate larval feeding within the stems.

Hardened black masses of plant exudate indicate larval feeding within the stems.

REFERENCES:

Linsley, E. G. and J. A. Chemsak. 1984. The Cerambycidae of North America, Part VII, No. 1: Taxonomy and classification of the subfamily Lamiinae, tribes Parmenini through Acanthoderini. University of California Publications in Entomology 102:1–258 [preview].

Woodruff, R. E. 1966. A cactus beetle new to the eastern United States (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae). Florida Department of Agriculture, Division of Plant Industry, Entomology Circular No. 53, 2 pp. [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Cactaceae, Cerambycidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Missouri Master Naturalists Seminar

Missouri Master Naturalist Confluence Chapter Seminar | December 9, 2014. Photo by Lee Phillion.

Speaking to the Missouri Master Naturalist Confluence Chapter, December 9, 2014. Photo by Lee Phillion.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of speaking to the Confluence Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist Program, the members of which are all graduates of the Missouri Master Naturalist Program. This community-based natural resource education and volunteer service program, sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the University of Missouri Extension Service, seeks to engage Missourians in the stewardship of our state’s natural resources through science-based education and volunteer community service. To accomplish such, members support conservation efforts and natural resource education in their local communities.

Since I’ve studied the insect fauna of Missouri for many years now, especially in its threatened and endangered natural communities, I thought a talk on this subject might be of interest to the group. I decided to focus on some of the work I’ve done in two of our state’s most critically imperiled natural communities: loess hilltop prairies in the northwest corner of the state and sand prairies in the southeastern lowlands—with a talk titled, “From Hilltops to Swamps: Insects in Missouri’s Rarest Prairies”. The presentation provided an overview of each of these natural communities, the circumstances that have led to their rarity in Missouri, and the insects associated with them with special emphasis on species that are dependent upon these natural communities for survival. For those who might be interested, I’ve posted a PDF version of the presentation here.

From Hilltops to Swamps: Insects in Missouri’s Rarest Prairies

Truth be told, it was one of the most enjoyable seminars I’ve ever given, due mostly to a wonderfully engaged audience of about 70 people. It was a perfect opportunity for me to promote awareness of insects and the need to consider them in conservation efforts with an audience whose members are at the forefront of the citizen science effort within our state. I extend my heartiest thanks to Leslie Limberg for giving me the opportunity to speak, Lee Phillion for sending me photos from the event, including the one posted above, and—most importantly—the members of the audience for the warm welcome they extended to me and the interest they showed during my presentation.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in [No taxon] | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Two endemic Jamaican jewel beetles: one known, one not?

I recently received a batch of jewel beetles from Enrico Ruzzier of Italy. It was an impressive sending (as is any sending of jewel beetles!) collected from diverse parts of the world, but what really caught my eye were two specimens he had collected earlier this year in Jamaica—both representing species in the genus Chrysobothris. Most members of this genus are moderate-sized in relation to other species in the family, but at only 5 and 6 mm in length the two specimens I received are downright tiny. They also are extraordinarily pretty compared to most species in the genus by virtue of their striking patterns of metallic green, red, and blue to violaceous colors! Even more interesting, however, was their West Indian provenance. This “biodiversity hotspot” enjoys not only high species diversity but also high species endemism as a result of the 7,000+ islands that comprise it. This is especially true for Jamaica, where my records indicate that 64% of the known jewel beetle fauna (16 of 25 species) occurs nowhere else.

One of the specimens was easily identifiable as Chrysobothris quadrimaculata (Fabricius, 1776) because of the transverse green, violaceous, and reddish-cupreous bands on the pronotum and metallic green “cross” on the elytra separating four large violaceous spots, each with a reddish-cupreous central area (Fisher 1925). This species has so far been found only in Jamaica and appears to be uncommon in collections. As far as I can tell, the only illustration of the species is a 224-year old drawing appearing in Olivier (1790)¹. Considering this and the extraordinary beauty of this little beetle, it seems appropriate to post a photo here (sent to me by Enrico in his initial query regarding its identity).

¹ This early landmark taxonomic publication is occasionally offered for sale by rare book dealers at asking prices that run in the thousands of dollars! Fortunately, the National Library of France has made a pdf of the book available for free download.

Chrysobothris quadrimaculata (Fabricius, 1776)

Chrysobothris quadrimaculata (Fabricius, 1776). Photo by Enrico Ruzzier.

The second specimen, even smaller but no less pretty than the first, has defied all attempts at identification. It does not key out in Fisher (1925) and clearly differs from the four species and one subspecies known to occur in Jamaica (all of which are endemic). Further comparison with descriptions of all known West Indian species also fails to turn up a match. Considering this and the fact that many West Indian Chrysobothris seem to be quite rare in general (Maier & Ivie 2012), I would not be surprised if this specimen turns out to represent yet another (and as yet undescribed) endemic species for Jamaica. I am hopeful (although not optimistic) that posting a photo here (also provided by Enrico Ruzzier) will prompt those with West Indian material in their collections to examine their holdings and see if any additional specimens can be located.

Chrysobothris n. sp. ex Jamaica

Chrysobothris n. sp.? Photo by Enrico Ruzzier.

REFERENCES:

Fisher, W. S. 1925. A revision of the West Indian Coleoptera of the family Buprestidae. Proceedings of The United States National Museum 65:1–207 [BioDiversity Heritage Library, BioStor].

Maier, C. A. & M. A. Ivie. 2013. New species and records of Chrysobothris Eschscholtz (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) from Montserrat, Saba, and Anguilla, with a key to the Chrysobothris thoracica species-group in the West Indies. The Coleopterists Bulletin 67(2):81–88 [BioOne].

Olivier, A. G. 1790. Entomologie, ou histoire naturelle des insectes, avec leurs caractères génériques et spécifiques, leur description, leur synonymie, et leur figure enluminée. Coléoptères. Tome 2, genera 9–34 (32. Bupreste), pp. 1–485, 63 plates, Baudouin, Paris [Bibliothèque nationale de France].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

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

First internet image of Phaenops piniedulis

During last June’s collecting trip through the western Great Plains, we stopped at an interesting spot in northeastern New Mexico near the small town of Mills (Harding Co.). Mills itself sits smack dab in the middle of expansive shortgrass prairie; however, a few miles to the west the flat terrain gives way to a rugged, boulder-strewn sandstone canyon harboring oak-pine-juniper woodland. Welcome to Mills Canyon, which descends almost 1,000 feet to the Canadian River below.

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

Oak-pine-juniper woodland near Mills Rim Campground, Harding Co., New Mexico.

Our quarry for the trip was longhorned beetles in the genus Prionus, especially those associated with grasslands in the central U.S., and while searching the area for suitable grassland-Prionus habitat we chanced upon this spot. Though not the grasslands we were searching for, the area looked interesting enough that we decided to stop and do a little beating. We were immediately rewarded with several interesting finds and decided to come back the next day when we had more time to spend. That was a good decision, as apparently the timing was perfect and we collected perhaps a dozen or more species of jewel and longhorned beetles.

Phaenops piniedulis on Pinus sp. | Mills Rim Campground, Harding Co., New Mexico.

Phaenops piniedulis on Pinus edulis  | Mills Rim Campground, Harding Co., New Mexico.

Perhaps the most interesting of the day’s catch was a single individual representing the jewel beetle Phaenops piniedulis. Though widespread across the southwestern U.S. (records exist from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Texas), it is nevertheless only rarely encountered, often no more than a few individuals at a time. As the name suggests, the species was originally associated with pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) (Burke 1908), although it has also been reared from California foothills pine (P. sabiniana), Jeffrey pine (P. jeffreyi), and single-leaf pinyon (P. monophylla) (MacRae & Nelson 2003). The species is distinguished from other several other North American species in the genus by the large yellow maculations that cover more than 50% of the elytral surface (Sloop 1937). These beetles are closely related to the so-called “fire beetles” of the genus Melanophila, the latter famous for their attraction to the smoldering and even still-burning wood of forest fires. However, Phaenops lack the large heat-sensing pores found on the metathorax of Melanophila and, thus, do not exhibit such behavior.

The photo above is not a true field photo, as I encountered the beetle on my beating sheet after whacking a dead pinyon pine branch. Rather than risking escape, I popped it into a vial for safekeeping and later that evening (when it was cooler) placed it on a pinyon twig for photographs. Even then it was still rather active, and the photo shown here is really the only decent photograph I obtained of the beetle. This turns out to be a rather significant photo, for as far as I can tell it is the only photograph of the species—live or dead—to be found on the internet!

REFERENCES:

Burke, H. 1908. A new buprestid enemy of Pinus edulisProceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 9(1–4):117–118 [Google Books].

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].

Sloop, K. D. 1937. A revision of the North American buprestid beetles belonging to the genus Melanophila (Coleoptera, Buprestidae). University of California Publications in Entomology 7(1):1–19.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

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

Scorching plains, screaming cactus

One of my greatest pleasures with collecting insects is not only the sights of the habitats that I visit, but the sounds. How many a night I’ve spent camped out in the Ozarks and watched royal moths fluttering at the blacklight sheet while dueling katydids traded their raspy “ch ch ch“s in the tree branches above and a whip-poor-will sang it’s haunting, eponymous song off in the distance. What joy to be hiking the canyon-lands out west and hear the musical, descending “t-te-tee-teee-teew-teeew-teeeew-teeeeew” of the canyon wren echoing off the tall, sheer rock faces. Even large-treed urban parks offer the hypnotizing “wee-er, wee-er, wee-er, weeeeeeeee” of scissor grinder cicadas (Tibicen pruinosa) on a hot summer night. Ah—cicadas! Few other animals can match their ability to fill a landscape with song, and with more than 100 species in North America it’s a safe bet that no matter where you go you can hear cicadas.

Cacama valvata

Cacama valvata (Uhler, 1888) | New Mexico, Harding Co., 5 mi W of Mills

Scissor grinders were the cicadas of my urban youth in Kansas City; I was a teenager the first time I heard the rich, pulsing buzz of bush cicadas (Tibicen dorsata) in the prairies around my house farther east in Blue Springs; and I experienced my first periodical cicada (Magicicada spp.) event as a young adult in St. Louis with Brood XIX and their whirring, “flying saucer” chorus. More recently, I’ve made several trips to the western Great Plains, where particularly large cicadas known as “cactus dodgers” (Cacama valvata) perch on prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) and cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) cacti and sing their loud, distinctive songs in the scorching, mid-summer heat. The male song has been described as a high pitched “metallic zing” (Beamer & Beamer 1930) or as an intense shrill, often in short bursts (Kondratieff et al. 2002); however, to me it sounds like a dull-bladed table saw cutting through a piece of ironwood and hitting a nail!

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata, Otero Co., Colorado) is a preferred host for Cacama valvata.

Fast flying and alert, cactus dodgers often defy the attempts of collectors (Kondratieff et al. 2002) and have the amazing ability to usually land safely on their spined hosts without becoming impaled (although occasionally this does happen—see photo below). The perils of dodging cactus spines, however, seem to pale compared with the benefits of utilizing these widespread hosts, as the association appears to have facilitated the spread of the species into a wide variety of environments across the southern Great Plains and westward to California (Sanborn & Phillips 2013).

Cacama valvata female

This female has a cactus spine impaled on her head.

The photos in this post were taken during late June 2014 in the scorching, cholla-studded, shortgrass prairies of southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico. Given their alertness and fast flying capabilities, they were a challenge to photograph before eventually finding the somewhat more cooperative subjects shown in the above photographs. Eventually, I was lucky enough to encounter two individuals sitting on a dead cholla stem in the mid-afternoon heat near Vogel Canyon, Colorado, one of which (the lower) was singing (and thus a male) and the other I surmised to be a female (this I confirmed once I got a better look through my camera viewfinder).

Cacama valvata male (bottom) & female (top)

A male Cacama valvata (bottom) sings to a female (top).

The male was creeping slowly towards the female as it sang, pausing occasionally and interrupting his song before resuming both. I presumed I was witnessing courtship singing, a behavior Kondratieff et al. (2002) have described in detail. They observed males perched on the ends of branches producing long, wavering, repeated shrills as they moved closer to the female. The song changed to a long shrill followed by shorter sequence of shrills as they made their final approach, which was followed by touching with the legs, mounting, and copulation.

Cacama valvata male singing

Cacama valvata male singing.

Unfortunately for this male, the female was already in the act of oviposition (poor male—wasting his time flirting with a married woman!). In cactus, females oviposit almost exclusively in dry, dead, skeletonized stems and rarely utilize green material (Beamer & Beamer 1930). The eggs laid by this female might remain in the dry stem for another three months or more, where they will await a fall rainstorm to wet the stem and ground and bring cooler temperatures to improve their chances of survival before hatching, dropping to the ground, burrowing into the soil, and searching for roots upon which they can feed.

Cacama valvata female ovipositing on dead cholla stem.

REFERENCES:

Beamer, L. D. & R. H. Beamer. 1930. Biological notes on some western cicadas. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 38(3):291—305 [pdf].

Kondratieff, B. C., A. R. Ellingson & D. A. Leatherman. 2002. Insects of Western North America 2. The Cicadas of Colorado (Homoptera: Cicadidae, Tibicinidae). Contributions of the C. P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity, Department of Bioagricultural Sciences & Pest Management, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, 63 pp. [pdf].

Sanborn, A. F. & P. K. Phillips. 2013. Biogeography of the Cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) of North America, North of Mexico. Diversity 5:166–239 (doi:10.3390/d5020166) [abstract].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Cactaceae, Cicadidae, Hemiptera | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

I got Thomas Shahan to image my Chrysochroa corbetti!

Chrysochroa-corbetti-TwitterThose who follow me on Twitter know that I attended Entomology 2014 last month in Portland, Oregon. As with other scientific conferences, live tweeting of the talks and associated events was all the rage. I may not have been the most prolific “tweeter”, but I did do my share, and one of my tweets involved a rather spectacular preserved specimen of the jewel beetle, Chrysochroa corbetti. The quick iPhone snapshot attached to the tweet was sufficient to prove that the beetle is pure eye candy, but still it did not do full justice to its stunning beauty:

Fortunately, while I was at the meetings I ran into Thomas Shahan—already an icon among insect macrophotographers for his seemingly impossible portraits of jumping spiders, tiger beetles, and other insects. I had planned to spend a couple of days in Salem after the meetings to visit my friend and longtime buprestophile Rick Westcott. As it happens, Thomas is currently a Digital Imaging Specialist at the Oregon Department of Agriculture where Rick spent his entire career as an entomologist. When I showed my specimen to Thomas, he kindly agreed to make some focus-stacked images of the specimen using his lab’s photographic setup. I think you can now agree that this is one of the most spectacular jewel beetles around, and I think you’ll also agree that these images by Thomas are perhaps the most stunning of this oft-photographed species. Be sure to check out the last photo—a 10× close-up of the dorsal elytral detail at the interface between the green and blue areas. Simply stunning!

Chrysochroa (Chroodema) corbetti (Kerremans, 1893) | Thailand

Chrysochroa (Chroodema) corbetti (Kerremans, 1893) | Thailand

Chrysochroa corbetti lateral view

Chrysochroa corbetti lateral view

Chrysochroa corbetti ventral view

Chrysochroa corbetti ventral v

Chrysochroa corbetti dorsal elytral detail (10X)

Chrysochroa corbetti dorsal elytral detail (10X)

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Buprestidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Guess who just turned 7?

Prionus heroicus | Harding Co., New Mexico

Prionus heroicus | Harding Co., New Mexico

No, not this very alarmed male Prionus heroicus (among North America’s largest longhorned beetles) seen this past June at Mills Rim Campground in northeastern New Mexico—although he could very well have spent several years underground as a ever-fatter grub feeding on tree roots (probably oaks) before emerging as an adult.

No, today is the 7th birthday of this blog, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d almost completely forgotten about it. To a human, seven years of age is still immaturity, but in blog years that’s getting close to old age—perhaps like it’s author! I guess old age (on both counts) qualifies me to reminisce a little bit. I’ve seen the blogging thing come—there was a time when it seemed everybody was blogging, and I’ve seen it mature into something a little different. People still blog, but not as many and not for the same reasons. In the early days, blogs were how people with common interests connected and interacted. Nowadays other social media (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) have usurped that role. I don’t think that has made blogs irrelevant, but rather they now seem to serve more for outreach and as searchable repositories for information (at least among natural history blogs). In the past I’ve vacillated greatly in my feelings about this (and I still do sort of miss the “good ol’ days” of lively conversations in the comments). But actually I’m okay with it. When I want my social fix I jump onto Facebook (or Twitter in certain circumstances). When I want to write a little more substantively—to recount memorable field trips, document interesting things I’ve learned, reflect on my experiences as an entomologist, etc.—I blog. I used to watch hit counts; now I hardly ever give them a thought. I care less about who is reading and how many of them there are than I do about the content of the writing and quality of the images I share with those who do choose to read. I am enjoying the fruits of having blogged consistently for seven years—able to write well (and fast), vastly more versed in natural history, and connected broadly to the larger entomological community—and that alone makes it worth continuing. I’ve learned to blog for me and not for what I think others want to see. How liberating! After 7 years, I am more comfortable with and motivated to write than ever.

To all those people who have followed me, either now or in the past, thank you for your part in helping me in this journey. To those who are still to come, I look forward to meeting you!

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Posted in Cerambycidae, Coleoptera | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments