Archive for Insects & plants

A BOUNTY OF BOXELDER BUGS

Posted in Insects, Pests, True bugs with tags , , , on March 24, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

A neighbor recently sought my advice about tiny, scarlet insects scurrying across his deck and up his walls, some of which were no larger than bits of coarsely ground pepper. Some had apparently found their way into his home and congregated in the well-lit windows on the south side of the house. A quick inspection of his home and property confirmed my suspicions; the tiny invaders were boxelder bugs.

For the past few weeks, I had noticed congregations of both adults and nymphs sunning themselves along back fences alleys and in trees growing along roadsides. I assured my neighbor that they posed no threat to property or pets, and that only in large numbers might they cause some damage to some plants.

The eastern boxelder bug, Boisea trivittata, is widespread throughout eastern United States. The wester boxelder bug, B. rubrolineata, is similar in appearance, but its found mainly west of the Rockies.

Adult boxelder bugs are flat, dark-gray insects with three red lines behind the head and may reach ½ inch in length. The thickened portions of their wings are bordered with red, while the membranous tips are blackish. They are strong fliers, flashing their bright red abdomens as they spread their wings and take to the air. Young nymphs are mostly red, but later stages appear darker as their wing pads grow larger. Both adults and nymphs have long, thin antennae.

Hibernating adults leave their winter hideaway with the advent of warm weather in late March or early April. Soon the females begin laying their dark reddish eggs in the crevices of bark on box elder trees and other nearby objects. The eggs hatch in two or three weeks, just as succulent new box elder leaves are beginning to appear. The nymphs eat and grow, shedding their external skeleton five times before becoming a fully winged adult. Up to two generations of boxelder bugs are produced annually.

Both adults and nymphs prefer to feed on the seed-bearing female box elder trees, sucking sap from the new leaves, tender twigs, and developing seeds. They will also attack ash, maple, plum, cherry, apple, and peach trees, as well as grapevines and strawberries. Damage from their feeding activities may cause blotchy yellow patches or brown spots on fruit and leaves. Severe infestations of boxelder bugs can result in misshapen leaves and fruit, but mature and healthy plants seldom suffer any serious harm.

In the late spring and early fall, flying or crawling boxelder bugs converge on stone piles, tree holes, and other protected places, sometimes by the hundreds. They may invade buildings, crowding into cracks and crevices in walls, door and window casings, and around foundations. They do not bite, nor do they damage buildings, furnishings, clothing, or food. However, they will soil curtains and walls with their waste and will definitely leave a stain if crushed.

The best way to keep unwanted boxelder bugs, as well as other insects and spiders, out of your home is by improving security. Replace screens and door sweeps. Repair thresholds and secure pet doors. Apply screens to vents and other openings. Caulk and seal all possible entry sites near doors, windows, crawl spaces, light fixtures, utility pipes or wires, weather boarding, and in areas along the foundation.

For boxelder bugs already in the house, vacuuming, sweeping, or picking them up are the most effective methods for dispatching them. They do not feed on household structures or reproduce indoors, so there is no need to use chemical controls inside the home. Aerosol sprays designed to kill ants and cockroaches are generally ineffective against boxelder bugs.

Removing leaf litter and other debris that serve as egg-laying sites near the base of female (seed-producing) box elder trees will reduce large populations of boxelder bugs outdoors. Eliminate other hiding places, such as piles of boards, rocks, leaves, grass, and other debris close to the house. Clear leaves and grass away from the house, especially on the south and west sides of the structure. Since boxelder bugs prefer to feed and lay their eggs on female box elder trees, plant male box elder trees instead. Male trees, propagated from cuttings taken from other male trees, are purchased from the nursery. These measures will significantly reduce the numbers of boxelder bugs looking to get inside your warm and cozy home.

As with many other insects labeled as “pests,” a little knowledge of their habits can help to reduce costly and sometimes unnecessary reliance upon pesticides, while at the same time raising our levels of tolerance and wonder. To me, this year’s appearance of boxelder bugs is just another marvelous pulse in the seasonal cycle of life. I am not the only one who feels this way. Just ask the folks in Minneota, Minnesota. They celebrate these little creatures each year with Boxelder Bug Days, a fall festival featuring bug races, bug poetry, plays, and other activities. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

© 2010, A.V. Evans

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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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