Archive for the Virginia Category

IN SEARCH OF A HOLY GRAIL

Posted in Butterflies, Flies, Insects, Virginia on August 22, 2011 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

Last week, on a drizzly Thursday morning, I drove out to Cherry Orchard Bog Natural Area Preserve with my friends and colleagues Anne Wright and Paul Bedell. Straddling a power line right-of-way near the Sussex-Prince George County line, this preserve features a coastal plain acidic seep that supports an amazing assemblage of rare plants, some of which bloom in late summer.  The Virginia Natural Heritage Program staff uses prescribed burns here to prevent trees, shrubs, and woody vines from choking this open wetland, and to restore and maintain this rare plant habitat. However, after yet another extended summer drought here in Virginia, surface water was nowhere in evidence.

My goal was to photograph and collect late summer beetles, while Anne and Paul focused their efforts on odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) and robber flies (Asilidae). Few beetles were out and about, so I strapped on my camera gear and knee-pads and turned my attention to photographing other insects and spiders.

Several tall and luxurious patches of sweet-scented joe pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum, grew smack dab in the middle of the power line right-of-way. These nectar-rich flowers were magnets for all kinds of insects (other than beetles!), including several species of butterflies. A dozen or so each of large showy eastern tiger swallowtails and monarch butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom, occasionally unfurling their probosces to imbibe the flower’s sweet offerings.

I decided to head into the adjacent woods by following a fire line that snaked along the edge of a recent prescribed burn. I scanned the lush wall of vegetation that delimited the surrounding woods from the burn in hopes of finding multi-legged creatures. Nearly half an hour elapsed and all I had to show for my photographic efforts was a young Carolina mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) and a black-and-yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia).

I saw a flash of shiny black wings among the foliage. My first thought was that it might be a mourning scorpionfly, but then it became clear that it was a female robber fly (family Asilidae) dining on a small wasp. I am no robber fly expert, but this particular fly reminded me of the genus Laphria, some of which are bee or wasp mimics.

Just as I was about to take a photograph, she was gone. Fortunately, I saw her land on a nearby leaf and she was still very much in possession of her lifeless prey. I leaned in to take the shot and, with the burst of my flash, she took to the air again. I watched intently as the shiny black fly flitted along the wood’s edge and landed on another leaf. Again, I slowly inched my camera toward her and watched her black shiny body fill up the frame of my viewfinder. And again, the flash of my camera caused her to fly away and into the burn area. I tracked her through several more landings on the low growth before she landed on a log. I took my third and last shot and she was gone. During the pursuit, a slightly smaller individual of the same species, possibly a male, also crossed my path.

I slowly walked all the way around the edge of the burn and back to the car, but saw no more robber flies. I told Paul that I had photographed what I thought to be a Laphria, but he said that the dark wings didn’t really fit any Virginia species in that genus. Paul would certainly know since he had recently published the first annotated checklist of the 115 species robber flies known to occur in Virginia (Bedell, 2010). I promised to post my best photo of the fly in question on my Facebook page as soon as I returned home.

Eric Fisher

Once posted, Paul suggested that it might be the very rare Orthogonis stygia, a species not yet known to occur in Virginia. I sent Paul all three of my images and he forwarded them to Eric Fisher for confirmation. Eric, a dipterist and asilid expert (and fellow alumni of Cal State Long Beach) quickly confirmed Paul’s identification and another new state record for Virginia.

Stanley Bromley (1931) first described this pompilid wasp mimic from three specimens collected in June; two of the specimens were from North Carolina and Mississippi, while the origin of the third specimen was unknown to him.  Another specimen was later recorded from Florida (Bromley, 1950).  Since then, specimens of this exceptionally rare species have been found in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas (Taber & Fleenor, 2003; Barnes et al., 2007).

Paul and I returned to the site only two days after I snapped my photos and searched several hours for Orthogonis. Although our efforts were in vain, we have not given up! Stay tuned for further developments

References

Barnes, J. K., N. Lavers, and H. Raney. 2007. Robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae) of Arkansas, U.S.A.: Notes and a checklist. Entomological News 118: 241-258.

Bedell, P. 2010. A preliminary list of the robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae) of Virginia. Banisteria 36: 3-19.

Bromley, S.W. 1931. New asilidae with a revised key to the genus Stenopogon Loew: (Diptera). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 24: 427-435.

Bromley, S.W. 1950. Florida Asilidae (Diptera) with description of one new species. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 43: 227-239.

Taber, S.W., and S.B. Fleenor. 2003. Range extension, habitat, and review of the rare robber fly Orthogonis stygia (Bromley). Southwestern Entomologist 29: 85-87.

For more information on robber flies visit:

Asilidae (Robber Flies) Page. A Page by Roy Beckemeyer <http://www.windsofkansas.com/Basilidae/asilid.html

Family Asilidae – Robber Flies <http://bugguide.net/node/view/151/bgpage>

Giff Beaton’s Robber Flies (Asilidae) of Georgia and the Southeast http://www.giffbeaton.com/Robber%20Flies.htm>

Robber Flies <http://hr-rna.com/RNA/Robber%20main%20page.htm>

Robber Flies (Asilidae) <http://www.geller-grimm.de/asilidae.htm>

The Robber Flies of Crowley’s Ridge, Arkansas. An Illustrated Guide by Norman Lavers http://normanlavers.net/>

ANOTHER RARE BEETLE ADDED TO THE VIRGINIA FAUNA

Posted in Beetles, Insects, Virginia on August 11, 2011 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

While sorting through some spring Malaise trap samples from the Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve, I came across a single specimen of a soldier beetle-like insect five millimeters in length that was unfamiliar to me. It resembled a drawing that I had seen in Blatchley (1910) of Blanchardia gracilis (now Blatchleya gracilis: Omethidae).

I ran the specimen through the omethid key American Beetles (2002) and determined it to be Omethes marginatus LeConte. The specimen compares perfectly to LeConte’s type in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and represents a new species AND family record for Virginia. Omethes marginatus was previously known from Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania; additional new state records include Arkansas and Indiana. Omethids of any stripe are rare in collections and little is known about their natural history.

References

Arnett, R.H., Jr., M.C. Thomas, P.E. Skelley, J.H. Frank, editors. 2002. Volume 2. American Beetles. Polyphaga: Scarabaeoidea through Curculionoidea. CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL.

Blatchley, W. 1910. An illustrated descriptive catalogue of the Coleoptera or beetles (exclusive of the Rhynchophora) known to occur in Indiana. With bibliography and descriptions of new species. Indianapolis, IN.

 

CALLING ALL CEPHALOON

Posted in Beetles, Virginia on March 10, 2011 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

In the early 1970’s I went on several family camping trips to Plumas County in California’s Sierra Nevada. My parents had purchased several acres of land bordered by a babbling stream that flowed out of Round Valley Reservoir located just outside the sleepy mountain town of Greenville. Here I spent many spring and summer days wandering along the trails and logging roads in search of all kinds of insects, especially beetles.

Meadow wildflowers bristled with species of lampyrids (Ellychnia) and lepturine cerambycids unlike any I had seen before. Freshly cut pine slash teemed with shiny metallic buprestids (Buprestis, Chalcophora, Dicerca) and cerambycids (Monochamus) sporting incredibly long antennae. Mating and feeding scarab beetles (Hoplia dispar) with their beefy back legs splayed out and sporting various colors and patterns clambered over one another among the blooms of buckbrush. The sunny shore along the reservoir and its associated paths and roads were bejeweled with emerald-green tiger  beetles (Cicindela tranquebarica sierra) that, more often than not, remained just out of reach. What a paradise for a budding young coleopterist!

Wolf lichen, Letharia sp. © 2002, Arthur V. Evans

On one of these trips, I was particularly fascinated by the various forms of lichen that festooned the granite boulders and conifer branches. I collected a small chunk of decaying wood clothed with the flourescent green wolf lichen (Letharia). The toxic yellow pigment of this fruticose lichen was used by ranchers to poison wolves and foxes and by Native Americans in dyes and paints.

Upon returning home, I placed that chunk of wood in a terrarium that consisted of a gallon jar supplied with a thick layer of moist, rich soil. After a few weeks, I noticed that a long, slender, leggy beetle had apparently emerged from the rotten wood and taken up residence in my terrarium. It resembled a somewhat homelier version of some of the beetles that I had collected on the meadow flowers. I didn’t know what to feed it and after a day or two it died. I carefully removed the beetle, mounted and labeled it, and placed the specimen among the other longhorn beetles in my collection. At that time my entire insect collection was housed in five cigar boxes. Even at this early stage of my entomological development, two-fifths of my collection (the King Edward and Swisher Sweets boxes) consisted entirely of beetles.

Several years later, I discovered that my terrarium beetle was not a longhorn at all. It was a false longhorn beetle in the genus Cephaloon. Cephaloon is currently placed in the family now known as the Stenotrachelidae, a small group of tenebrionoid beetles with 19 species distributed throughout the Holarctic region. Of the 10 species and four genera of stenotrachelids known in North America, five species occur east of the Mississippi River. The monotypic genera Anelpistus, Nematoplus, and Stenotrachelus all have northern, or boreal distributions, but the fifth genus, Cephaloon, ranges a bit more south in the forested mountain chains of the Sierra Nevada in the west and the Appalachian Mountains of the east. There are six North American species of Cephaloon,  two of which occur in eastern North America; two additional species are found in eastern Siberia and Japan.

Thomas L. Casey, Jr.  (1857-1925) divided the North American species of Cephaloon into three more genera. Edwin Van Dyke (1869-1952) considered Casey’s taxa as subgenera of Cephaloon. The North American species were later “revised” by the brothers Hopping (Ralph and George) and they relegated Casey’s taxa to synonymy. Ross Arnett, Jr. (1919-1999) reviewed the Nearctic and Palearctic species of Cephaloon. All of the species in this genus are slender, leggy, and somewhat broad-shouldered beetles that resemble lepturine cerambycids, resulting in the common name “false longhorn beetles.”

Stentotrachelids are relatively rare in collections. The short-lived adults are seldom collected in numbers and thought to feed on pollen. Species of Cephaloon are typically found during the late spring resting on flowers or vegetation during the day in montane deciduous and coniferous forests. They are collected by hand, or by sweeping and beating vegetation. Individuals are also attracted to lights at night or captured in Malaise and flight intercept traps. Based on the known biology of C. ungulare LeConte in eastern North America, the larvae of all species of Cephaloon are likely to develop in decaying logs infected with fungal rot.

Cephaloon lepturides Newman. ©2009, Arthur V. Evans

British entomologist Edward Newman (1801-1876) described the first species of Cephaloon, C. lepturides, in 1838 from a single specimen collected by Edward Doubleday (1811-1849) at Trenton Falls, New York. Doubleday was a well-known British lepidopterist and had undertaken a two-year insect collecting trip to the United States in 1835.

Newman originally placed Cephaloon among other genera for which he did not assign to a “natural order,” or family, but later placed it in the Oedemeridae. Russian entomologist Victor Motschulsky (1810-1871) placed it in the Melandryidae. John LeConte (1825-1883) initially thought that they were meloids, but later selected Cepahloon as the sole representative of his new family, the Cephaloidae. Over the years more genera were added to the Cephaloidae, the name of which was replaced by Stenotrachelidae in 1990 on the basis of priority by Finnish coleopterist Hans Silfverberg.

Little is known about the biology of Cephaloon. Their montane distributions and the saproxylic preferences of the larvae suggest their possible use as biological indicator species. Populations of saproxylic beetles are significantly related to parameters of forest structure and health. The impacts of current forest management practices on these and other saproxylic beetles, especially those that reduce coarse woody debris and fragment old growth forests, are poorly understood and need further study.

References

Arnett Jr., R.H. 1953. A review of the beetle family Cephaloidae. Proceedings of the United State National Museum 103 (3321): 155-161.

Casey, T.L. 1898. Studies in Cephaloidae. Entomological News 9: 193-195.

Evans, A.V. and J.N. Hogue. 2006. Field Guide to Beetles of California. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 334 pp.

Hopping, R. and G.R. Hopping. 1934. A revision of the genus Cephaloon Newm. Pan-Pacific Entomologist. 10: 64-70.

Lawrence, J.F. 1991. Cephaloidae (Tenebrionidae) (including Nematoplidae, Stenotrachelidae. p. 529. In Stehr, F.W. Immature insects. Volume 2. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. Dubuque, IA. 975 pp.

LeConte, J.L. 1862. Classification of the Coleoptera of North America. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 3: 209-286.

Lawrence, J.F. and A. Slipinski. 2010. 11.17. Stenotrachelidae C.G. Thomson, 1859. p. 687. In Leschen, R.A.B., R.G. Beutel, J.F. Lawrence (editors). Handbook of Zoology. Arthropoda: Insecta. Coleoptera, Beetles. Volume 2: Morphology and Systematics (Elateroidea, Bostrichiformia, Cucujiformia partim).  De Gruyter, Berlin, Germany. 786 pp.

Majka, C.G. 2011. The Stenotrachelidae (Coleoptera) of Atlantic Canada. Journal of the Acadian Entomological Society 7: 7-13.

Majka, C.G. and D.A. Pollock. 2006. Understanding saproxylic beetles: new records of Tetratomidae, Melandryidae, Synchroidae, and Scraptiidae from the Maritime Provinces of Canada (Coleoptera: Tenebrionoidea). Zootaxa 1248: 45-68.

Newman, E. 1838. Entomological notes. Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine 5: 377-402.

Salmon, M.A. 2000. The Aurelian legacy. British butterflies and their collectors. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 432 pp.

Silfverberg, H. 1990. The nomenclaturally correct names of some family-groups in Coleoptera. Entomologica Fennica 1: 119-121.

Storer, T.I., R.L. Usinger, and D. Lukas. 2004. Sierra Nevada Natural History. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 438 pp.

Van Dyke, E.C. New species of heteromerous Coleoptera. Bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society 23: 252-262.

Young, D.K. 2002. 110. Stenotrachelidae. pp. 520-521. In Arnett Jr., R.H., M.C. Thomas, P.E. Skelley, and J.H. Frank (editors). American Beetles. Volume 2. Polyphaga: Scarabaeoidea through Curculionoidea. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.  861 pp.

© 2011, Arthur V. Evans

A RARE BEETLE NEW TO VIRGINIA

Posted in Beetles, Environment, VCU Rice Center, Virginia on January 22, 2011 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

Xylophilus crassicornis Muona. © 2011, A.V. Evans

My insect survey at the VCU Rice Center continues to reveal species that are rarely collected and/or newly recorded for the Commonwealth of Virginia. While sorting through dozens of trap samples containing thousands of insects, I recently discovered three specimens of a rarely collected false click beetle (Eucnemidae), Xylophilus crassicornis. This collection represents the first records for the genus and species in Virginia.

Xylophilus crassicornis was first described by Finnish entomologist Jyriki Muona in 2000 from a single female specimen collected from Maryland in 1902. The specimen was located in the collection of the Entomology Department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A second specimen from Alambama was identified last year. The VCU Rice Center specimens, the sex of which are yet unknown, measure 2.8-4.0 mm and were collected from Malaise traps in May that were placed just northwest of the administrative building and among the vernal pools off Kimages Road.

Malaise trap. © 2010, A.V. Evans

Although relatively little is known of their habits and distribution, false click beetles probably play an important role in the interactions between trees, fungi, and forest regeneration. Further study of their biology may suggest their use as important indicators of forest diversity.

References

Hoffman, R.L., R.L. Otto, and R. Vigneault. 2009. An annotated list of the false click beetles of Virginia (Coleoptera: Eucnemidae). Banisteria 34: 25-32.

Muona, J. 2000. A revision of the Nearctic Eucnemidae. Acta Zoologica Fennica 212: 1-106.

© 2011, A.V. Evans

TIPPING THE SCALES

Posted in Pests, Scale insects, Virginia with tags , , , , on September 19, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

Wax scales that is. Indian wax scales to be precise.

While trimming our nandina hedge this afternoon, I noticed a couple of small, white, barnacle-looking lumps on a stem. They were female Indian wax scales, Ceroplastes ceriferus (Fabricius). Sexing Indian wax scales is easy since males are not known in any wild population in Virginia. Adults are covered with a thick, white waxy layer that not only protects them from predators, parasitoids, and pesticides, but also helps them to survive freezing temperatures during the winter.

Reproduction is by parthenogenesis. One generation is produced annually in Virginia, but two or more appear in warmer climates. The first instars, or crawlers, hatch in spring and early summer and feed on leaves. They are not covered with a protective wax layer and are very susceptible to dehydration, parasites, and pesticides.

Adult Indian wax scales are conspicuous in late summer and early fall and suck sap from at least 122 plant species in 46 families. Prolific breeders, they quickly cover ornamental plants. Burgeoning wax scale populations not only ruin the plant’s appearance, but also cover them with sooty mold that develops on the prodigious amount of sticky waste (honeydew) that they produce.

Carefully tipping or lifting the scale to one side to detach the it from the plant stem reveals the orange and segmented body underneath. In the adjacent photo, the anterior of the body is on the lower right, while posterior is on the upper left. The mouthparts are visible and appear as a dark central spot at about the anterior third of the body.

Resource: Kosztarab, M. 1996. Scale Insects of Northeastern North America. Identification, Biology, and Distribution. Virginia Museum of Natural History, Special Publication No. 3. Martinsville, VA. 650 pp.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

A BEVY OF BUCKEYES

Posted in Butterflies, Insects, Virginia with tags , , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

For the past month or so, Virginia has been awash with the Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia. The name Junonia is derived from the diminutive form of the Greek Juno, Zeus’ consort, while the specific epithet, coenia, comes from the Greek kionos meaning common. With six distinct eyespots on their wings, these handsome and energetic insects cannot be confused with any other butterfly species in the Commonwealth.

Their rapid, low, and somewhat erratic flight consists of fluttering strokes occasionally interrupted by meandering glides usually of no more than a foot off the ground. When alarmed, Common Buckeyes are capable of taking to the air in a rapid and sustained flight. They sip nectar from a variety of flowers and frequently rest in open, sunny spots in neighborhoods, parks, wetlands, fields, roadsides, and other open habitats with plenty of low-growing vegetation.

The orange-headed and metallic blue-spined caterpillars are highly variable in color and pattern. They feed on plants in several families and are especially fond of those in the snapdragon (Scrophulariaceae) and acanthus (Acanthaceae) families.

Although they occur throughout the United States, Common Buckeyes only persist in the frost-free southern and eastern halves of the country; individuals observed in the Great Lakes States, New England, and southern Canada are migrants. In eastern United States, these butterflies are in evidence throughout the winter in Florida and the coastal regions of southeastern and Gulf States.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

FALCATE ORANGETIPS

Posted in Butterflies, Environment, Insects, Virginia with tags , , , , , , , on April 5, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

After a few false starts spring has finally arrived here in central Virginia, and not a moment too soon. In hopes of seeing some examples of the early spring insect fauna, I recently set out on a warm, sunny day for the James River Park near the 42nd Street entrance.

The orange and slightly hooked wing-tips were the unmistakable field marks of the male falcate orangetip, Anthocharis midea, the only species of orangetip butterfly found in the eastern United States.

The latest floodwaters from spring rains had only just receded, leaving a thin and dusty film of silt and debris high above the river’s usual channel in the park. Just past the flood residue, small plants had raised their tiny blossoms high to lure the season’s first pollen- and nectar-loving insects.

As I wandered upriver toward the Nickle Bridge, a flash of white with a hint of rich orange crossed my path. It slowly yet deliberately flitted about the freshly emerged sprigs of green that populated the edges of the path before finally settling for just a moment or two on a small flower. The orange and slightly hooked wing-tips were the unmistakable field marks of the male falcate orangetip, Anthocharis midea, the only species of orangetip butterfly found in eastern United States.

The females lack the orange patch, but are otherwise similar in appearance to the males. The wings of both sexes are mostly white; the underside of the hind wing bears a finely marbled yellowish-brown pattern. From tip to tip, their wings span no more than one-and-a-half inches across.

Falcate orangetips are among the first butterflies to emerge from their pupae in spring. Widespread in Virginia, they are found in a variety of habitats, including parks, rocky mountain outcrops, open deciduous and mixed pine-oak woodlands, sandhills, and floodplain forests, especially along stream and river courses.

Females lay their greenish-yellow eggs singly on the flowers of various cresses and other members of the mustard family. The eggs soon turn red and hatch into ravenous larvae that devour mostly seed pods, buds, and flowers, and not leaves. Because of the limited number of reproductive structures on each food plant, larger caterpillars will not hesitate to eat their smaller brethren to reduce competition for meager food resources.

Mature caterpillars are green or blue-green and sprinkled with shiny dark plates bearing short bristles. A yellow stripe runs down the length of the back, while a broad white stripe runs from the head and along each side and meet on its backside. The winter is spent, sometimes two, as a narrow chrysalis that is sharply pointed on both ends.

Don’t hesitate to look for these attractive insects in an open woodland or bottomland forest near you. By early June the falcate orangetips will all be gone, and you will have to wait until the following spring for the next generation to once again make their brief and welcome appearance as heralds of spring.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

BELLY UP TO THE GRAVEL BAR FOR TOAD BUGS

Posted in Aquatic, Defense, Insects, Predators/parasites/parasitoids, True bugs, Virginia, Virginia State Parks with tags , , , , on March 28, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

One of my favorite haunts for insect photography is a small and unassuming gravel bar located just downstream from the dam that keeps the Swift Creek Lake within its banks in Pocahontas State Park, Virginia.

The toad bug, Gelastocoris oculatus, is widely distributed throughout southern Canada and most of the United States.

Gravel bars are tough places to live. Their surfaces can reach blistering temperatures or be completely inundated by flooding waters. Still, they support insects adapted to live under such harsh conditions that are seldom found anywhere else.

Many larger species spend their days hiding under stones and their nights foraging for food and mates. Some smaller species spend their entire lives comfortably wedged between the narrow, wet spaces between pebbles and coarse grains of sand. And still others are just passing through.

Not long ago, with a rushing stream at my back, I slowly knelt down on thankfully padded knees to recalibrate my focus on this universe wrought small. It took me of bit of time and patience to get my head out of the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, shake off the city with its noise and congestion, and begin to really see and appreciate the tiny inhabitants of this rocky shoal.

Bit by bit I took in my surroundings. Suddenly, a bit of movement drew my eyes toward a small embankment. I kept staring at the spot as I inched toward it, hoping to see whatever it was moving again. But it didn’t. Then it did, and I zeroed in on the spot. Just as the short, warty bug with bulging eyes came into focus, it jumped away. It was a toad bug, Gelastocoris oculatus.

It was as if I had just seen an old friend. I can still remember my very first encounter with this species along the edges of Little Rock Creek that meandered slowly out of the San Gabriel Mountains to the southern fringes of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. This species of toad bug is widely distributed throughout southern Canada and most of the United States.

The rough bodies of toad bugs are usually dull and mottled with brown and black. The base colors range from almost entirely yellowish, reddish-yellow, grayish-black, to nearly black. As a result, toad bugs are masters of the disappearing act.

Their front legs resemble those of a praying mantis, only shorter and chunkier. And like praying mantises, toad bugs are voracious predators and use these legs to capture small insects.

In Virginia, both larvae and adults live gregariously in a variety of habitats along the muddy, sandy, or gravelly margins of ponds, streams, and rivers. Overwintering adults appear in spring to feed and mate.

From May through September each female lays a dozen or so white eggs at a time in the sand, probably 200 or more in their lifetime. The eggs hatch in about two weeks; another two or three months are required before the larvae reach adulthood.

The toad bug eventually abandoned the gravel bar and disappeared into some low herbaceous growth nearby. I turned to find a small coppery ground beetle with bulging eyes, bright green legs, and patches of purple on its back running across the gravel, but this is a story for another time.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

ALTERNATIVE SPRING BREAK AT THE VCU RICE CENTER

Posted in Education, Environment, Insects, VCU Rice Center, Virginia with tags , , on March 26, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

© 2010, J. Barton

Last week, I met a group of very dedicated and enthusiastic students from the Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Wesleyan College at the VCU Rice Center in Charles City County. They had spent the last several days participating in various activities as part of this year’s Alternative Spring Break. Sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Alternative Spring Break provides students with an opportunity to explore and give to their community by providing a week’s worth of environmental and conservation projects, such as planting trees, tending gardens, tidying  up parks and wildlife refuges, and stream cleanups. At the Rice Center, some of the students would have the opportunity to help me with my insect survey.

© 2010, J. Barton

After an impromptu presentation about my survey and some of the methods used to trap insects, my team of volunteers was ready to get started. They grabbed tools and traps and set out for the first trap site. Working like a well-oiled machine and with minimal direction, they quickly established two sets of Malaise, Lindgren, and pit fall traps in less than two hours.

Malaise trap. © 2010, A.V. Evans

What is a Malaise trap you ask? It’s like a tent with its walls on the inside and is specifically designed to capture flying insects, day or night. Upon hitting the internal nylon panels, most insects will eventually work their way up into a collecting container partly filled with alcohol. Malaise traps are usually used to catch flies, bees, and wasps, but other kinds of insects are captured, too. They are typically placed along roads, trails, streams, or forest edges. Up to 1,000 insects a day may be captured in a good site.

Lindgren funnel trap. © 2010, A.V. Evans

Lindgren funnel traps are designed to attract and capture wood-boring beetles and other insects that alight on tree trunks. They consist of a rain and debris guard with a dozen black plastic funnels suspended directly underneath. Attached to the bottom funnel is a specimen receptacle. Each trap is fitted with chemical lures that simulate the odors given off by dead and dying trees. Insects attempting to land on the trap fall down the funnels and into the receptacle at the bottom. Foresters use Lindgren funnel traps to monitor pest insects in stands of managed timber, especially bark beetles.

Pit fall traps connected by drift fences of metal flashing capture small crawling animals,

Pit fall traps. © 2010, A.V. Evans

especially insects and other arthropods. At the end of each drift fence is a single pit fall trap consisting of two 16-ounce plastic drink cups nested in one another and sunk so that the tops are flush with the soil surface. The inner cup is partly filled with environmentally “friendly” antifreeze (propylene glycol). Each cup is covered with 1/2” mesh and flashing to keep out both vertebrates and rain.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

Thank you so very much to all the students who joined me on that wonderful day. Not only did you help get the job done, you also inspired me with your camaraderie, energy, and sense of purpose.

© 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

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