What’s black and white and red all over?

Last September, labmate and fellow insect collecting enthusiast Stephen Penn and I visited the dolomite glades of the White River Hills in extreme southwestern Missouri. Our main quarry was tiger beetles, specifically a disjunct population of the large and impressive Prairie Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina) that lives only on the glades in this area and adjacent Arkansas. I was hoping to find additional localities for the beetles in the more western parts of the region where it’s precise distribution in Missouri is less well known. First, however, I wanted to make sure the beetle was out, so we started at the westernmost of its known locations—Chute Ridge Glade at Roaring River State Park. As we picked our way through dry-mesic woodland bordering the more open glades, a large, dead chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) with sloughing bark caught my eye. One never knows what might be encountered under bark, regardless of the season, and as I pulled away the very first slab of bark I was rewarded with the sight of what must be North America’s most beautiful assassin bug, Microtomus purcis.

Microtomus purcis

Microtomus purcis (Drury, 1782) | Barry Co., Missouri

Sometimes called the “bark assassin bug”, this species is not quite as large as the better known “wheel bug” (Arilus cristatus) but makes up this by its spectacular coloration—black with the base of the wings prominently marked creamy-white and parts of the abdomen and hind legs bright red. One would think such a conspicuously  marked assassin bug with a bite powerfully painful enough to back up its apparent warning coloration could brazenly venture out during the day with little to fear. To the contrary, this species seems best known for its habit of hiding under bark during the day and venturing out only at night, during which time it is sometimes attracted to lights (Slater & Baranowski 1978, Eaton & Kaufman 2007). A majority of BugGuide photos of the species also mention finding them under bark or apparently attracted to lights.¹

¹ I was especially amused by this particular photo for which the contributor states, “While holding it, the bug pierced my finger nail with its proboscis. The pain was searing and I have a small blood stain under the nail.” I’ll admit it—I, too, learned firsthand how painful the bite of an assassin bug can be when I picked one up, in my case Melanolestes picipes, with plans to include it in my Entomology 101 collection.

Sunset on the glade

Sunset on the glade | Pilot Knob Conservation Area, Stone Co., Missouri

I, in fact, have only seen this species once before—also in Missouri and again under bark, although that time was during the winter, thus causing me to think this was its overwintering habit. I placed the individual in a glass vial and brought it indoors to “revive” it, but to my disappointment when I checked on it a few days later it was dead. Froeschner (1944) reported this species (under its older name, Hammacerus purcis) was “not uncommon” in Missouri, though apparently confined to the Ozark Highlands south of the Missouri River. Adult records in Missouri extended from September to March, with small nymphs being found during November and December, but BugGuide records include summer months as well. If I want to see this species more than twice in 30 years, I supposed I am going to have to spend more time peeling bark, or checking lights.

REFERENCES:

Eaton, E. R. & K. Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 391 pp. [Amazon preview].

Froeschner, R. C. 1944. Contribution to a synopsis of the Hemiptera of Missouri, Pt. III. Lygaeidae, Pyrrhocoridae, Piesmidae, Tingidae, Enicocephalidae, Phymatidae, Ploiariidae, Reduviidae, Nabidae. The American Midland Naturalist 31(3):638–683 [JSTOR preview].

Slater, J. A. & R. M. Baranowski. 1978. How to Know the True Bugs. The Pictured Key Nature Series, William C. Brown Company Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, x + 256 pp. [Amazon description].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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

One million hits!

Million-hitsI knew it was coming, and yesterday it happened. I was really hoping to see hit number 1,000,000 appear on the small ‘Blog Stats’ item at the bottom of the right sidebar, but I just missed it due to a small traffic spike right around the time that it occurred. As near as I can tell, the one millionth hit came at 1:27 p.m. (Central Standard Time) from somebody in Tempe, Arizona. Whoever you were, whether a regular reader or just passing by, congratulations. However, the real thanks must be shared with all of you who helped log the previous 999,999 hits, for without you there would be no Beetles in the Bush. Here’s to two million!

p.s. To those who would poo poo this accomplishment, who think that internet traffic site stats are meaningless, that there is nothing out there but an army of bots and search engines generating irrelevant stats, please go rain on somebody else’s day.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

Posted in [No taxon] | Tagged | 11 Comments

Best of BitB 2014

Welcome to the 7th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. Before I do this, however, let me briefly recap the year 2014. The trend of increasing travel each year continued, with more days spent on the road than in any prior year. Travel for work over the past few years has settled into a familiar routine—touring soybean fields in Argentina in late February and early March, working in my own field trials at (previously three, now four) sites in Illinois and Tennessee from late May through late September, touring more soybean fields at sites across the southeastern U.S. during mid-September, returning to Argentina in October to finalize plans for field trials in the upcoming season, and—finally—attending/presenting at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Meetings (this year in Portland, Oregon). This heavy travel load makes scheduling my own insect collecting trips a bit tricky, but I’m a persistent sort! In late May I traveled to Tennessee and Georgia with fellow buprestophile Joshua Basham and lab mate Nadeer Youseff to collect several rare jewel beetles, then in late June I collected prionids and jewel beetles in Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma with Jeff Huether. In addition to these longer trips, I also managed to take advantage of my work travel to check out interesting natural habitats along the way to and from my field sites. I continue to give the occasional entomology seminar as well, speaking in March at “Day of Insects” in Ames, Iowa and here in St. Louis to the Entomology Natural History Group of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society in April and the Missouri Master Naturalists Confluence Chapter in December. On top of all this, I still managed to vacation with my family in Lake Tahoe during March and in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico during late July.

I say all this to highlight the fact that after all these years I still consider myself an entomologist with a camera rather than a bona fide insect photographer. The reason for this is that the science of entomology itself remains my primary focus—photography is simply one of the tools that I have come to use in my pursuit of the discipline. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t continue to work on my photography style and technique—because I do. But my style and technique are not goals in of themselves; rather, they are means to an end—that end being my entomological studies. With that said, I present my favorite BitB photographs from 2014. As in previous years, my photos are largely hand-held, in situ field shots that are intended to tell a natural history story in a (hopefully) aesthetic manner. Links to original posts are provided for each photo selection, and I welcome any comments you may have regarding which (if any) is your favorite and why—such feedback will be helpful for me as I continue to hone my craft. If you’re interested, here are my previous years’ picks for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Once again, thank you for your readership, and I hope to see you in 2015!


Paraselenis tersa? female guarding her eggs | Cordoba Prov., Argentina

Paraselenis tersa (Boheman, 1854) | Cordoba Prov., Argentina

From Tortoise beetles on the job (posted April 20). This photograph of a tortoise beetle female over her egg mass illustrates maternal guarding behavior—rare in insects. The perfect lateral profile shot and clean, blue sky background also give the photo a pleasing aesthetic quality.


Who likes mole crickets?

Scapteriscus borellii Giglio-Tos, 1894 | Emanuel Co., Georgia

From Who likes mole crickets? (posted June 6). This has to be the most comical expression ever on the face of an insect!


Chrysobothris orono Frost, 1920 | South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee

Chrysobothris orono Frost, 1920 | South Cumberland State Park, Grundy Co., Tennessee

From Chrysobothris orono in Tennessee (posted July 29). I found this rare jewel beetle for the first time this year with the help of Josh Basham and Nadeer Youseff. The beetle itself is beautiful enough, but photographing it on a pine root with a presumed adult emergence hole adds considerable natural history interest to the photo. Rock substrate behind the root adds a pleasingly blurred background.


Buprestis (Stereosa) salisburyensis Herbst, 1801 | South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee.

Buprestis (Stereosa) salisburyensis Herbst, 1801 | South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee.

From The Buprestis tree (posted August 10). This was another of several jewel beetles that I found for the first time after more than three decades of collecting this group. I like the value contrast in this photo from the striking, metallic colors of the beetle against the nicely blurred cinnamon-colored pine bark of the tree on which it is sitting.


A "super moon" watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

A “super moon” watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

From A time of reckoning (posted August 13). I fully admit this is a composite photograph. Nevertheless, it is a faithful recreation of a true sight, and I don’t consider the use of composite techniques to overcome equipment shortcomings to be unethical. There is a haunting symmetry between the blood red moon—considered by some as a sign of the second coming—and the sad, parasitized caterpillar waiting for its inevitable demise.


The greatly expanded palps are thought to mimic beetle mandibles or spider pedipalps.

Phyllopalpus pulchellus Uhler, 1864 | Hickman Co., Kentucky

From My, what busy palps you have! (posted September 2). I’ve become quite fond of insect photos with the subject “peering” at me, the photographer”, from some unusual vantage point. The “pupils” in the eyes of this red-headed bush cricket give the insect an almost quizzical look.


Acmaeodera immaculata Horn, 1881 | vic. Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado.

Acmaeodera immaculata Horn, 1878 | vic. Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado.

From Sunset beetles (posted September 30). Taking photos of insects at sunset is a challenging and ephemeral experience—one has only a few minutes to take advantage of the unusual and serene colors it offers, while at the same time trying to determine the best camera and flash settings to use in the rapidly fading light. Of the several that I’ve tried, this one is my favorite because of the softly complimentary colors of the beetle, the flower upon which it is sitting, and the dying orange sky behind it. If I had to choose, I would probably pick this one as my favorite of the year because of the unusual and serene colors.


Megacyllene decora (Olivier, 1795) | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Megacyllene decora (Olivier, 1795) | Stoddard Co., Missouri

From Amorpha borer on goldenrod (posted October 5). I featured this very same species in Best of BitB 2012 but can’t resist choosing this second attempt at photographing the spectacularly beautiful adult—this time on goldenrod. As with the previous version this is a true in situ field photograph, hand held and using the left-hand technique to achieve precise composition against a clear blue sky—difficult to do with an insect of this size and using a 100-mm lens, but well worth the effort.


Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta Say, 1823 | Woods Co., Oklahoma

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta Say, 1823 | Woods Co., Oklahoma

From A Buprestis hat-trick! (posted October 14). I didn’t take near as many of the classic “frontal portraits” this year, but this one of a jewel beetle that had eluded me for more than 30 years until this past June is perhaps my favorite of them all.


Agrilus concinnus  Horn, 1891 | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Agrilus concinnus Horn, 1891 | Stoddard Co., Missouri

From North America’s Most Beautiful Agrilus Jewel Beetle (posted October 19). There was a time when this beetle was considered one of North America’s rarest species of jewel beetle. Several years worth of hunting by me and others revealed this beetle’s association with mallow and its unusually late adult activity period—the two combining to make this beetle “seem” rare. This year I succeeded in photographing the spectacular adult beetle.


Cacama valvata female ovipositing

Cacama valvata (Uhler, 1888) | Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado

From Scorching plains, screaming cactus (posted December 5). Insect photos are always better when they also show some aspect of the subject’s natural history. I was lucky to find this female cactus dodger cicada in the act of ovipositing into the dry stem of cholla cactus—in a position where I could get a perfect lateral profile with a clean, blue sky background.


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

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

From Cactus beetle redux (posted December 20). Cactus beetles can be difficult to photograph, but sometimes they cooperate by nicely posing on a pleasing pink flower bud with a blue sky in the background and the cactus spines forming a nice, fuzzy “halo” around the jet black beetle. There were surprisingly few cactus spines impaled in the control unit of my flash after this photo session.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this 2014 version of “Best of BitB” and look forward to seeing everyone in 2015.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2015

Posted in Buprestidae, Cerambycidae, Chrysomelidae, Cicadidae, Coleoptera, Curculionidae, Gryllidae, Gryllotalpidae, Hemiptera, Lepidoptera, Orthoptera, Sphingidae | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Virtual Mantle 2014

As our lives become more digitized, the relatively new tradition of sending holiday “e-greetings” continues to grow. I for one embrace this tradition, as it doesn’t really replace the old tradition of sending actual cards but rather expands the scope of people with whom I can exchange greetings. I still send “real” cards to family and close, personal friends, but I can now also send greetings to the many entomologist/natural historian friends and colleagues with whom I’ve interacted over the past year. For several years now I’ve used the “photoshopped Santa hat theme” (see 2011’s Santa Jaws, 2012’s Buprestis saintnicholasii, and last year’s Felizard Navidad), but this year I decided to send a more “super-powered” greeting!

My entomologist friends and colleagues are also increasingly joining in the act, and just as many people hang holiday cards on their fireplace mantle, I like to hang holiday e-cards on the virtual mantle here at BitB—see my virtual mantles from 2012 and 2013. This year I received greetings from entomologists both here in the USA and the far flung continents of Europe, Asia, and Australia! If you didn’t send me an e-card this year, I hope you’ll consider sending me one in 2015.

Daniele Baiocchi—Rome, Italy

Daniele Baiocchi—Rome, Italy

Svata Bílý—Prague, Czech Republic

Svata Bílý—Prague, Czech Republic

Gianfranco Curletti, Museo Civico di Storia Naturale, Carmagnola, Italy

Gianfranco Curletti, Museo Civico di Storia Naturale, Carmagnola, Italy

Eduard Jendek, State Forest Products Research Institute, Bratislava, Slovakia

Eduard Jendek, State Forest Products Research Institute, Bratislava, Slovakia

Mark Kalashian, Institute of Zoology, Yerevan, Armenia

Mark Kalashian, Institute of Zoology, Yerevan, Armenia

Allan Smith-Pardo, USDA-APHIS-PPQ, South San Francisco, California, USA

Allan Smith-Pardo, USDA-APHIS-PPQ, South San Francisco, California, USA

Pham, Hong Thai, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, Hanoi

Pham, Hong Thai, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, Hanoi

Stanislav Prepsl, Vyškov, Czech Republic

Stanislav Prepsl, Vyškov, Czech Republic

Robert Sites, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

Robert Sites, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

Ilja Trojan, South Moravia, Czech Republic

Ilja Trojan, South Moravia, Czech Republic

Mark Volkovitsh, Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia

Mark Volkovitsh, Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Goeff Williams, Australian Museum, Sydney South, New South Wales

Goeff Williams, Australian Museum, Sydney South, New South Wales

Junsuke Yamasako, University of Tokyo, Japan

Junsuke Yamasako, University of Tokyo, Japan

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

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Holiday Greetings from BitB!

Batyle suturalis

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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

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