Archive for the Musings Category

ONE SMALL STEP FORTY-TWO YEARS AGO

Posted in Beetles, Butterflies, California, Insects, Moths, Musings on July 20, 2011 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

I grew up on the southwestern fringes of the Mojave Desert in Southern California, just a stone’s throw from the land of The Right Stuff. My summers were punctuated by weeklong family camping trips to the mountains and the coast. Dad preferred the rugged lushness of the Sierra Nevada, especially along the waterways that spilled off its eastern slopes down to the desert environs of the Owens Valley below. Mom loved the beach, so we would spend another week camped out at Morro Bay or Pismo Beach, both located along California’s Central Coast.

In July of 1969, we spent a week in the Oceano Campground at Pismo Beach State Park, which just happens to be a well-known overwintering site for monarch butterflies. I can still smell the heavy canvas of our baby blue and olive-drab tents heated by the sun as it burned through the last bits of morning fog. I spent every possible moment exploring the freshwater lagoon, coastal dunes, and beach in search of insects and other invertebrates. California ctenucha moths, Ctenucha rubroscapus flitted about the flowers and grasses sprouting up on the dunes. Several diurnal and non-bioluminescent fireflies, Ellychnia californicarested on the flowers growing among the stinging nettles that lined the shore of  the lagoon. Red admirals, western tiger swallowtails, and a dizzying array of dragonflies flew hither and yon, all seemingly daring me to capture them. And I did just that with my recently acquired homemade insect net fashioned from a broom handle, a heavy wire coat hanger, and a net bag made of cheesecloth.

In those days I kept my insect collection in sturdy cardboard cigar boxes. King Edward Imperials housed my butterflies and moths, while the dragonflies were stored in a White Owl box. A Roi-Tan Panatelas box protected my true bugs, cicadas, grasshoppers, and katydids. All of my beetles were neatly arranged in a box that once held Swisher Sweets and the Dutch Masters box served as a catchall for everything else. I can still smell that pungent aroma of tobacco mingled with mothballs!

Earlier that week, on the morning of 16 July, Apollo 11 had set off on its historic flight to put men on the moon and return them safely to Earth. The astronaut’s first steps on the lunar surface, interspersed with simulations, would be televised early on the evening of Sunday, 20 July. Fortunately, I would have access to a television by then because that was the day we would return home.

The promise of seeing and collecting still more insects AND watching men on the moon on television was pretty heady stuff for a 12 year-old! The night was shaping up to be hot and uncharacteristically humid and promised an excellent night for insect activity. I turned on the mercury vapor street light mounted on the garage wall. Dad had installed the bright blue light partly to illuminate the front of the house, and partly to attract insects for me. I quickly discovered that it was a beacon for nocturnal insects!

My plan for the evening was to dash from the light to the television and back to watch both spectacles unfold. It wasn’t even dark yet when Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the Lunar Module and slowly descended down the ladder to utter those now-famous words, all captured on fuzzy black and white, yet still quite memorable video. Throughout the evening, between bouts of nighttime bugs, I watched in awe as Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin bounced across the lunar surface to collect samples and conduct experiments. Just a few years later, I had the opportunity to meet Buzz Aldrin and get his autograph after he gave a lecture on his lunar experience at the annual Kern-Antelope Historical Society banquet held in Rosamond, California.

As night descended, thousands of insects of all sorts swarmed to the bright bluish light, zooming around it as if they, too, were satellites orbiting a heavenly body. My eyes, ears, and nose were simultaneously assaulted by the flappings and scratchings of chitinous wings and appendages. Undeterred, I dove into the swarm from time-to-time to scoop up select specimens off the rough stucco wall. Some of the more notable insects that I saw that night included many white-line sphinx moths, several California prionus, and a raft of 10-lined June beetles.

For those who did not experience the Apollo 11 mission as it took place, it is difficult to imagine the nearly global excitement generated by the landing of men on the moon. I was lucky enough see this epic event on television. I still get a little verklempt when I watch the video some 42 years later and will forever remember that warm summer night all those many years ago and its promise and deliverance of new and exciting things here on Earth and beyond.

References on California insects

Evans, A.V. and J.N. Hogue, 2004. Introduction to California Beetles. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Evans, A.V. and J.N. Hogue, 2006. Field Guide to Beetles of California. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hogue, C.L. 1993. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA.

Powell, J.A. and P.A. Opler, 2009. Moths of Western North America. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Powell, J.A. and C.L. Hogue, 1979. California Insects. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

For more information on Apollo 11 and its mission see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11

http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/history/apollo/apollo11/index.html

http://www.lpi.usra.edu/lunar/missions/apollo/apollo_11/

http://history.nasa.gov/ap11ann/kippsphotos/apollo.html

SKY ISLANDS, DESERT SEA-Part II, Hornworm Highway

Posted in Arizona, Insects, Moths, Musings, Predators/parasites/parasitoids with tags , , , , on April 26, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

Charged by the onset of the summer monsoons in July or August, the arthropods of Arizona’s Sky Islands and desert seas are stirred into action.  The sudden and intense infusion of life-giving moisture triggers a flush of activity: eggs hatch, hungry larvae gobble up new leaves, adults are released from their earthen or wooden chambers, eager to mate and reproduce.  It is this marvelous intensity of arthropod activity that has drawn me to the mountains, desert scrub and grasslands of southeastern Arizona for nearly 40 years.

My earliest impressions of Arizona’s desert seas were formed by numerous overland trips from California in the 1970’s. Within minutes of crossing the Colorado River, the first saguaros would greet us, stationed like lone sentinels high on the rocky ridges of the Dome Rock Mountains. Although these giant columnar cacti have become symbolic of all arid regions of the southwest, they are strictly indigenous to the Sonoran Desert. These and other nearby desert ranges are capable only of supporting plants and animals adapted to fleeting amounts of rain. The summer monsoons, even at their height, seldom penetrate this far north and west.

Driving east from Gila Bend to the Maricopa Mountains, the stands of saguaros become taller and denser. Compared to the deeply pleated trunks of their western brethren, the almost bulging flesh of these plants is a clear sign of increased precipitation. The saguaros’ spongy inner tissues rapidly expand to absorb and store seasonal supplies of water as a hedge against the inevitable drought ahead.  Even the spiny ocotillo stand taller and greener here, surrounded by dense thickets of palo verde.  Here all living things enjoy the increased benefits of living under the blanket of the summer monsoons.

Another sure sign of increased rainfall is the sporadic population explosion of green and black-striped hornworms, caterpillars of the white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata. Dozens to hundreds of these insects race across the hot, blistering highway in a scramble for tender desert greens. Some years there are so many of the caterpillars that the pavement becomes slick with their crushed bodies. At night marauding three-inch-long shield-backed katydids of the genus Capnobates rip chunks of sun-dried caterpillar from the road and grind them up with their powerful jaws, while scores of ants carve up the leftovers and carry them back to their underground brood.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

TRUE CONFESSIONS

Posted in Centipedes, Environment, Musings with tags , , on April 3, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

Every now and again I am asked what is my least favorite insect or spider. I really don’t have an answer for this question. But I can say, without hesitation, that my least favorite arthropod is the centipede.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that centipedes are fascinating animals, but every time I happen upon one of the larger species in the Order Scolopendromorpha, I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up and a cold chill run down my spine.

A centipede has never bitten me, so my discomfiture is not based on personal experience. But I do know what the larger species are capable of in terms of delivering a painful, yet non life-threatening bite with their powerful fanglike front feet, or gnathopods. Combined with their speed and lithe bodies, centipedes just set me on edge.

Scolopendra heros from southeastern Arizona dining on a young mouse. Note the thick, black gnathopod next below the head.

Scolopendra heros, the largest centipede species in the United States, measures in at a whopping 6.5 inches (16.5 cm). They range from central and southern Arizona east to southwestern Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This species is extremely variable in color. During the summer, adults are active around the clock and are easily seen in the headlights of a moving car as they cross the highway at night with their fore bodies bobbing up and down.

I used to collect these big bruisers to put on display in Insect Zoo at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. While on the road, I checked their containers often to make that the lids were securely fastened. My travelling companions were regularly warned that if a lid accidentally came off and a centipede was on the loose, I would immediately abandon the vehicle.

Yesterday, while collecting beetles in the Zuni Pine Barrens of the Blackwater Ecological Preserve, I committed a potentially serious faux pas in the field by peeling back some loose bark of a dead loblolly pine tree that was leaning directly over my head.

Hemiscolopendra marginata occurs in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas east to Virginia and Florida; it is absent in most of the Appalachians.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blue-green centipede, Hemiscolopendra marginata, fall from its once-secure perch, its two-inch long body trunk twisting in the air in an effort regain some sort of foothold. Before I could react, it slid across my forearm to the leaf litter below. Or so I thought.

For several seconds my mind raced. What if it didn’t fall on the ground? What if it or another centipede landed on my shoulder? What should I do? What if it got inside my shirt? My now fevered brain began imagining the centipede sinking it’s gnathopods into the soft and sensitive skin of my neck. Or worse.

I stood perfectly still in the bright spring sun filtering through the tall and slender pines, my body tingling all over in anticipation of anything from a crawling sensation to a stabbing pain. The centipede was nowhere to be felt or found. Still, it took me several more minutes to become convinced that my person was centipede-free and begin to feel a sense of relief.

Recounting this event a full day later still gives me the heebie-jeebies!

© 2010, A.V. Evans

INSECTS BRING OUT THE INNER CHILD

Posted in Beetles, Education, Grasshoppers & crickets, Insects, Musings, Virginia with tags , on March 18, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

Two wars, recession, earthquakes, and the seemingly endless wrangling of politicians—the news has not been very good lately. These combined with the usual everyday stuff makes it all too easy to get bogged down wondering where the world is headed. But occasionally, I am afforded a welcome change of perspective—that of seeing the world once again through the eyes of a child.

The author at the tender age of 14, or thereabouts, enjoying a summer day on a family camping trip somewhere in California's Sierra Nevada.

I was given this fresh viewpoint awhile back at the grand opening at the new Children’s Garden at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. The garden is a microcosm of landscapes, plant adaptations, and human-plant interactions. A boardwalk accessible to all winds through various mini environments on its way to the Leafy Overlook and Tree House, introducing visitors to coniferous forests, deciduous woodlands, grasslands, and a butterfly meadow.

Also included is an International Village with Lilliputian playhouses depicting different cultures to demonstrate how people around the world use plants for food, materials, and medicine. As the garden matures, it will continue to be a haven for young naturalists and their families to explore plant diversity with its creeping vines, prickly plants, and inviting blooms, both sweet-smelling and otherwise.

It is also a great place for bug watching. That’s where I came in. I was invited to participate in the grand opening of the Children’s Garden as entomologist Dr. Art Evans, “the bug guy.” My task was to engage garden visitors in a series of bug talks and walks. My display was simple, consisting of a collection of local insects and a variety of popular identification guides for the region, as well as copies of my own magazine and newspaper writings on insects and spiders.

Families flocked around the display, amazed at the local insect diversity. Soon I was peppered with all kinds of questions. “Are they real?” “What is this?” “Does it bite?” “What does it do?” “What do they eat?” “Are they really found around here?”

Within just minutes, my world-weariness melted away. I was once again caught up in the excitement of my audience’s infectious enthusiasm for insects. After meeting with dozens of parents and their children, it dawned on me that there are two types people in this world: those that love insects and those that don’t yet know they love insects.

After answering some questions, I briefly introduced myself to the audience, and talked about some of the things that entomologists do in the world. Then we covered some bug basics, like their number of legs (6), body regions (3), and metamorphosis. Also discussed was how insects differ from other kinds of common garden animals such as spiders (8 legs, 2 body regions), worms (no segmented appendages), and slugs (no external skeleton or appendages).

The best part of the day was the bug walk. It was like going on safari. As we searched for tiny game, our goal was not to collect or kill, but to observe and marvel. The weather was overcast and decidedly cooler from the previous day when I had done my reconnoitering for bug hot spots at the garden. Still, there was plenty of insect hubbub about the flowering plants.

Bumblebees, soldier beetles, thread-wasted wasps, and various kinds of butterflies, skippers and moths clambered over the spikes of small yellow flowers as if they knew that fall had arrived and that warm and sunny days were now numbered. Both adults and youngsters peered into the blooms to admire the diversity and activity of this energetic, winged, and multi-legged assemblage. It was a great demonstration of how both plants and insects depend on one another for their very existence.

Nearby, black swallowtail caterpillars nibbled away on a lone fennel plant beneath the dining room window of the Bloemendaal house. We were all being treated to the fact that eating is job one for growing caterpillars of all stripes. Soon, they would all disappear as quickly as they appeared and transform twice more into entirely different creatures with no resemblance whatsoever to their current state.

The shrubs and low hedges were filled with the songs of amorous male crickets and meadow katydids, all scraping their wings together to produce characteristic chirps, clicks, and rasps to attract a mate.  In just a matter of yards we found more species of insects and spiders than could be found of mammals, birds, or reptiles in the entire garden!

This fabulous hands-on experience reminded me once again of why I got into this field in the first place. Sure, insects, spiders and their relatives are everywhere and are endlessly fascinating in their ways, fueling lifetimes of scientific research and popular writing projects. But I have come to understand that my attraction to all things insect is really about my desire to learn as much as possible of the world around me. I truly believe that the desire to learn is a very basic human need; the day we stop learning is the day we start dying.

To see the natural world through the eyes of children, or adults who have not lost their childlike sense of wonder and awe, is truly a gift. For me, it is a clear reminder of my own wonder and excitement that sparked my lifelong interest in insects nearly 50 years ago. I am confident in my knowledge that there are still plenty of insects and spiders out there to see, learn, and do for at least another 50 years.

The author, down and dirty on his knees at Virginia Beach in 2007, searching for false soldier beetles (Oedemeridae) under driftwood.

One of the great things about being a biologist is that we always get to keep a part of our childhood with us while we conduct fieldwork. It is part and parcel of our various job descriptions to wonder how things work as we get down and dirty on our hands and knees to rake through the soil, muck about in the mud, or slosh around in creeks and ponds. Now I ask you, what could be better than that?

© 2010, A.V. Evans

JOHN BANISTER, VIRGINIA’S FIRST NATURALIST

Posted in Insects, Musings, Virginia with tags , , , , on February 21, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

BY ARTHUR V. EVANS

The significance of Virginia as a cradle of natural history study in North America is largely overshadowed by the region’s cultural milieu of indigenous peoples, colonialism, war, and social upheaval.

Nonetheless, the study of natural history in the state goes back more than 300 years. The Reverend John Banister (1650-1692) was Virginia’s first trained naturalist. Although primarily interested in plants, he was an avid student of all natural history, especially insects and spiders.

Banister trained to be an Anglican minister at Magdalen College, Oxford University. During his tenure as a student, Banister displayed a strong interest in natural history that caught the eye of one of his professors, Robert Morrison. Working on his own volume on plants, Morrison convinced the Bishop of Oxford, also a botanist, to send young Banister as a minister to the James River area in the Virginia Colony, presumably to care for souls and certainly to collect plant specimens and seeds.

Banister set sail for the New World in 1677. He arrived in Jamestown sometime before Christmas the same year on the sailing ship Hopewell and proceeded up river to the Falls, the future site of Richmond. There he met William Byrd I, a prominent landowner and trader.

Byrd was instrumental in securing books, paper, and drawing materials in England to support Banister’s natural history studies. Banister accompanied Byrd’s expeditions into the frontier, including short forays into the mountains, and gathered numerous specimens of plants, insects, and spiders.

In 1680, Banister sent his first shipment of Virginia specimens and drawings to Morrison, which included the first samples and renderings of the insectivorous pitcher plant. His drawings and specimens of insects and spiders wound up in the hands of the renowned English naturalist and physician, Martin Lister.

"Vespa Ichneumon" from "John Banister and his Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692," Joseph and Nesta Ewan (1970, University of Illinois Press).

Banister’s efforts to observe and record Virginia’s natural history were severely hampered by the financial uncertainties of his day. Ministers were largely supported by large and cumbersome donations of tobacco from colonists. Then, as now, government funding for basic scientific investigations was woefully inadequate.

To support himself, his family, and his natural history studies, Banister acquired 1,735 acres of land in Charles City County in 1690. That same year he sat on the newly formed committee that met to establish the College of William and Mary which, due to financial difficulties, did not receive its charter until after Banister’s untimely death in 1692.

While accompanying Byrd on a trip to the Roanoke River, Banister was accidentally shot and killed by another member of the party. His natural history collections and copies of his catalogues were packed up and shipped to London, but his library of natural history books remained in Virginia with Byrd, who hoped in vain that they would be used by Banister’s successor.

Some of Banister’s Virginia insect observations appeared posthumously in the Philosophical Transactions, published by the Royal Society in London in 1701 (available online at JSTOR). His lively accounts of such familiar insects as carpenter bees, hornets, body lice, lightning bugs, cicadas, dung beetles, and others make great reading.

Banister’s legacy lives on today in the Virginia Natural History Society. Founded in 1992, the Society publishes Banisteria, a journal devoted to the natural history of Virginia. Each issue is chock-full of articles covering botany, zoology, ecology, and geology, all vital to our understanding of Virginia’s incredibly diverse natural heritage.

To read more about the fascinating life and contributions of Virginia’s first naturalist see: John Banister and his natural history of Virginia 1678-1692, by Joseph and Nesta Ewan (1970).

© 2010, A.V. Evans

NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS INFORM PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

Posted in Education, Environment, Musings with tags on May 26, 2009 by Dr. Art Evans

I recently attended a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s core network of museums. Although I have worked with museum collections for years, I still had that sense that I was in a scene from Citizen Kane or Indiana Jones as I wandered the labyrinth of hallways and dimly lit passages lined floor-to-ceiling with stacks of cabinets and shelves chock full of specimens from around the world.

Yet, it is sobering to note that over the years natural history collections are on hard times as funding and public interests have waxed and waned. Many universities and smaller museums have divested themselves of their collections of pressed, impaled, pickled, stuffed, and skinned specimens of plants and animals. Administrators, policy makers, and the scientists among them are hard pressed to justify the “care and feeding” of collections, preferring instead to direct ever-shrinking resources into other projects that are more likely to attract supplemental funding. However, as support for collecting and collections dwindles, the need for the information they provide continues to increase.

Biodiversity research has long been the primary motivation behind the use of natural history collections. However, the traditional uses of these collections for the purposes of identification, the study of relationships, and evolutionary biology through the examination and comparison of specimens are only part of the story. These very same specimens are now useful tools for tracking changes in populations and habitats over time.

Like “biological filter paper,” natural history specimens can reveal past and present environmental conditions. Chemical analyses of feathers, hair, bone, muscles, blood, stomach contents, and vegetative tissues are now used to trace migratory movements, uncover feeding behaviors, reveal changes in habitats over time, and determine the epidemiology of diseases that affect animals and crops.

For example, analysis of old egg specimens demonstrated the devastating effect DDT had on bird reproduction and ultimately resulted in legislation that banned its use in this country. Similar studies were conducted to trace the increase of harmful mutations after nuclear accidents (remember Chernobyl?), the origin and movement of crop diseases (think Irish potato famine), and the rise of mercury levels in marine animals.

I have always thought of natural history collections like libraries, only the references contained therein are in the form of specimens. Like books, carefully prepared collections provide unique information that links identity, geography, and history. This is the very information that conservationists rely on to inform their decisions regarding the rarity of species and the potential impacts of climate change on those species.

Like a library, the relevance and vitality of natural history collections is maintained through new acquisitions in the form of specimens gathered during ongoing field surveys. Data gleaned from both rare and common species will better inform scientists and policy makers to address the inevitable challenges wrought by shifting populations and habitats. But will we as a society have the foresight and will to support such endeavors?

©2009, A.V. Evans

OUR SEAS OF PLASTIC

Posted in Aquatic, Education, Environment, Musings on March 30, 2009 by Dr. Art Evans

I want to bring to your attention the efforts of a former colleague of mine at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Dr. Marcus Eriksen. Marcus is a man of many talents: scientist, educator, author, conservationist, and adventurer. As the Director of Research and Education at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation , he is actively involved in the protection of marine watersheds through research, education, and restoration. Marcus and the AMRF team are at the forefront of studying the massive accumulation of plastic debris in our oceans and the impact of this pollution on marine life and the human food supply. Hundreds of millions of tons of bottles, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, bags, food containers, toys and other plastic items are washed through our watersheds and into our oceans each year.

Phase I of this AMRF study, dubbed “Message in a Bottle,” began with a research voyage into the North Pacific Gyre to investigate plastic pollution that has been dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” In Phase II, Marcus and a colleague sailed 2,600 miles from Los Angeles to Hawaii last summer on a raft made from 15,000 plastic bottles to raise awareness of plastic marine debris fouling our oceans.

Phase III begins on Saturday, 4 April when Marcus and his fiance Anna ride their bicycles 2000 miles from Vancouver, British Columbia to Tijuana, Mexico. Along this route they will distribute samples of plastic debris collected from the North Pacific Gyre to legislators, educators, and organizations to raise awareness of plastic debris in our oceans.

The problem is that plastic is designed to last forever, yet we use it regularly to make products that are thrown away. Although recycling is effective for paper, metal, glass, and other materials, it is not the answer for plastics. And as a petroleum product plastic, like our consumption of gasoline, keeps us dependent upon foreign sources of oil.

The “Message in a Bottle” project has encouraged me to rethink how I use plastic products at home and in the workplace. My first small step into this brave new world is to avoid purchasing or using drinks of any kind in plastic bottles, especially water. Then I am going to try to encourage my favorite take-out eateries to start using more eco-friendly to-go containers. A recent trip to the grocery store was sober reminder of just how pervasive plastic is in our culture, but there are lots of creative people out there who are coming up with practical and interesting ways for reusing and recycling these containers.

If we all do our part, and encourage our colleagues, clients, and visitors to do the same, we can make a difference and help to reduce the amount of plastic debris that finds its way into our oceans!

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