Browne to Green

The Works of Sir Thomas Browne (1927 John Grant edition)

The Works of Sir Thomas Browne (1927 John Grant edition)

“Men that look upon my outside, perusing onely my condition, and fortunes, do erre in my altitude; for I am above Atlas his shoulders.”

Written by Sir Thomas Browne some centuries ago in his work Religio Medici, this sentence caught my attention when I first encountered it some years ago and it continues to fascinate me. The image of Atlas is curious. I always picture this god holding the earth on his shoulder, then inevitably wonder, not how heavy it must be, but where could he be standing. What is below Atlas his feet? And I admire the surprising use of the word “altitude.” But ultimately I suspect the main reason this sentence resides and rides along in memory is its sound, the syntax and cadence, especially that final phrase zeroing in on the shoulders.

Because my thoughts tend to dash off on wild tangents when reading, I sometimes (more often than I should care to admit) miss the point, and missing the point of this sentence by Browne would be especially embarrassing given that the sentence is about misreading, about errors in judgment. So let me change directions and get to the point of this blog entry, the point being that I did err in my estimation of the month of April.

Just as it’s possible to err in the estimation of a person’s “altitude,” it’s also possible to mistake the weather. By and large the general consensus of the weather throughout the month of April was that it was the pits, that it wasn’t fit for man nor beast. Perusing the conditions at my window or on the computer screen I too easily agreed. I was convinced spring wasn’t coming. The days linked together to form a malicious, unwelcome limbo. Each afternoon seemed to lose its way between melting ice and freezing water. However much I griped and kept from venturing out, the world beyond our snow-spattered windows found enough sunlight and warmth to get on about the business of changing seasons.

Judged by the list of first-of-the-year sightings—the first Chorus Frogs, the first Sandhill Cranes, the first mining bees, the first dragonflies, the first flowers, Scilla and Sanguinaria on the ground, Salix and Acer overhead —spring undoubtedly arrived in April. The ice went out. The grass turned green. Underneath the shroud of inclement weather, snow falling even to the final days of the month, the soil unthawed, the buds burst, and the insects awoke.

So far, May has been a lot easier to read.

Mining Bee (Andrena sp.) on Siberian Squill

Mining Bee (Andrena sp.) on Siberian Squill

Starting Small

With the arrival of the first sixty degree day in nearly six months (since October 12, 2013…but who’s counting!), It seemed wise to start small and see if even a fly or a spider could be found, some small living thing from under the recently dismantled snowdrifts. So I drove to a grouping of local catchment ponds that get a lot of sun and always thaw out early. Perched here and there on the windlestraes were several big, recently numb tachnid flies and a miniscule black beetle like a small shining obsidian bead. Beneath some nearby pines, I found a Lynx Spider spiderling not much larger than an ant’s tear or a beetle’s begging cup. A little further on, three powder-gray grasshopper nymphs kicked and tumbled among the dead grass blades and dropped needles.

Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs, but the Green-striped Grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata) gets a jump on those by overwintering as a nymph. The two nymphs pictured here, are both third instar nymphs, based on the wing development, the smallish wing pads pointing down with veins visible.

With the help of an Olympus micro 4/3 camera, extension tubes, and 45mm lens, starting small can get splendidly big, the small nymphs growing to colossal size on the screen. A close-up of the chitinous face reveals something like weathered stone, shiny in places like the glaze on the pottery in our cupboards. Zooming in on the painted eye, reveals a sphere like a tipped half-moon, a shape that wouldn’t look at all out of place on a Henry Moore bronze. Just how tough do you have to be to survive winter, especially without a fireplace or central heat, I sometimes wonder? These small nymphs are just one of the many answers to that question.

What You Can Do For Bumble Bees

A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson

A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson is due out in the United States from Picador at the end of April. By ordering a used copy of the English edition that was printed last year, I was able to jump ahead and read it in advance. Anyone with even a fleeting interest in native pollinators, in habitat loss, in agriculture, or in conservation will want to order this well-written, often-entertaining book. Combining memoir and natural history into a near perfect blend, Goulson gives us tales of tagging and tracking bumblebees, of grad students paired up with bumblebee sniffer dogs, of reintroducing locally extinct populations, all the while giving clear explanations of the science involved and the current research being done. If you’re already a bumble bee aficionado, who perhaps, like my daughter, enjoys watching and petting these big fuzzies while they visit summer flowers, I know you’ll enjoy this book immensely.

In one of the final chapters, Goulson admits to what must be a common frustration for scientists and researchers: “one might find out everything there is to know about bumblebees, and publish it for others to read in scientific journals, but only a handful of other scientists would read it and it would not result in there being one more bumblebee in the world.” Because of his knowledge and the need to get something done, Goulson founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a non-profit charity “for the bumblebees” with the goal of raising awareness of endangered bumblebees and bumblebee conservation among farmers and land managers and gardeners, people in a position to improve habitat and increase the number of bumblebees in the world.

While most of the science and natural history in this book relates to the UK, much of it applies equally well to our North American bumble bees and their conservation needs. (One difference being the spelling of “bumble bee”–the convention seems to be two words here, but a single word in the UK. If we look back more than a century, we find “Humble-bee” in use by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Darwin, because of the hum the bees make when flying). In North America, with one of our native species believed to be extinct, Franklin’s Bumble Bee (Bombus franklini), and numerous other species numbers in alarming decline, it’s obviously time to do something for our bumble bees as well.

Fortunately, many people here in the states have been hard at work protecting bumble bees for some time. The Xerces Society, which has been involved with protecting and raising awareness of native pollinators for many years, has recently helped to launch Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen scientist survey and monitoring project and website. As soon as I learned of this site, I searched through my old photos for some that I could submit. I didn’t find many. Bumble bees are difficult to photograph—they rarely stay still and if they do, their head is buried out of sight in the petals of the flower they are visiting. Out of three years of photos, I was more than a little disappointed to find only four bees to submit. Even still, it was satisfying to make even this small contribution to this wonderful new project.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee, Northfield, Minnesota, July 30, 2013

Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis) – Northfield, Minnesota, July 30, 2013

Last spring, aided by a copy of Befriending Bumble Bees: A Practical Guide to Raising Local Bumble Bees by Elaine Hodges, Ian Burns, and Marla Spivak, I attempted to rear bumble bees. I built the small boxes for the queens, in some ways like match-box size rabbit hutches. Rolled pollen balls. Prepared nectar. Captured and detained four separate queens: one Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) and three Two-spotted Bumble Bees (Bombus bimaculatus). None of them nested. I think my mistake was that I didn’t keep the queens in the starter nests warm enough (last spring was not an average spring, resembling rather a two-month extension of winter). When the queens didn’t show signs of nesting, I set them free. Hopefully this year I’ll have better luck coaxing a couple queens into starting a nest. Beyond the satisfaction and entertainment of rearing a colony, it seems useful to pursue the possibility of providing some local farmers with local pollinators.

Earlier this week, yet another bumble bee book landed in my mailbox: the new identification guide Bumble Bees of North America by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson, and Sheila Colla. And while I’ve only just begun to read through the front matter, and flip through the individual species accounts, this surely will be another great asset to anyone working with bumble bees in North America.

So, if you’re still wondering what you can do for bumble bees, I’d recommend digging into any of the books mentioned here during the few weeks left of winter. Then do some gardening, add some native plants that will provide native bees with needed nectar and pollen to your property. If you want to do more, throw some support to The Xerces Society or other organizations conserving needed habitat and start telling others about ways to support native pollinators.

Bumble Bees of North America

Bumble Bees of North America

First Wasp of 2014

Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014

Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014

Our always vigilant cat noticed this tiny wasp (6mm in length) on a rug in our kitchen. I believe it belongs somewhere among the Aphid Wasps (Pemphredoninae). The wing venation, the single submarginal cell, is a little curious and doesn’t match any of the illustrations in Bohart and Menke (1976), so I haven’t been able to proceed much farther than the subfamily.

Finding an aphid-hunting wasp in the house in March in Minnesota raises some questions, especially with the snow still piled deeply outside. Being a cavity nester, it could have emerged from some of the stems and galls I have sitting out in my office. That’s one possibility. But, given the porosity of the walls and foundations of this old house, the avenues for a creature this size to enter into our living space are many and, having not seen a living wasp of any kind for quite a number of months, most welcome.

Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014.

Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014.

Mothing

Blurry Chocolate Angle

Blurry Chocolate Angle

“Chancing to take a memorable walk by moonlight some years ago, I resolved to take more such walks, and make acquaintance with another side of Nature.” – Henry David Thoreau

The mothing began without intention, the frontdoor light left on by chance. Going out well after dark with the dog, I noticed several moths on the side of the house near the light and had the wherewithal to capture several of them. Thereafter, following this serendipitous beginning, the light was left on deliberately, becoming something of a nightly ritual throughout the autumn months.

Not long after the mothing commenced, I purchased a copy of Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard by John Himmelman. I enjoyed this book immensely, reading it cover-to-cover in a matter of days. Himmelmann does a really great job of passing along his enthusiasm for moths. The line drawings, the mini-biographies of Lepidopterists and other mothing folk, the seasonal presentation of the mothing year, and the color plates provided the thorough introduction to this group of insects that I needed. And it was in this book, in its discussion of mothing equipment, that I came upon the suggestion of using a bug-zapper as a mothing light.

Now, the bug zapper is truly a repugnant invention. The one and only insect pest it purports to annihilate, the mosquito, is not attracted to light. What smokes and settles in a heap beneath the powered-up machine is a wide variety of beneficial insects, non-biting midges and moths making up a large percentage of the kills. The fact that they are marketed nowadays with chemical lures to attract mosquitoes I take to be an admission of their ineffectualness. In my opinion, bug zappers should be banned and taken off the market. A consequence of their ineffectualness, however, is that used ones are available very cheap. And, using a few simple tools and some electrical tape, the high-voltage grid can be disarmed and the remaining UV light repurposed as a moth light.

This new set up, the now-benign bug zapper hung at the top of our white garage door, provided a marked increase in the attendance of moths. Once or twice a week, if the weather cooperated, I’d set up the light, turn it on, and wait. I’d go out at dusk and then a number of times after that, eventually turning the light off at some point well after midnight to let the moths go about their business…and not rouse too much curiosity about my behavior among our neighbors.

Vagabond Crambus Moth

Vagabond Crambus Moth

My daughter took to helping me (any excuse to stay up late…right!) and became very adept at catching the moths. Most of the moths were small and could be captured in vials. After capture, the moths went into the refrigerator for the night. In the morning, once the sun was up, they were photographed and released. Usually, the refrigerated moths would sit for some time while they warmed up, allowing me to take dozens of photos. The smaller the moth the less time you have—the ratio of surface area to body volume playing a part in how fast they warmed. The micro moths flew almost as soon as I popped the top on the plastic vial, so I don’t have many successful photos of these tiny moths. My daughter also enjoys all the curious names that moths have been given, as do I. Here’s a sampling: The Wedgeling, The Asteroid, The Deceptive Snout, The Ambiguous Moth, Blurry Chocolate Angle, Hitched Arches, The White Speck.

Our shiny Peterson Guide to moths, purchased in 2012 and barely used, was finally getting some use. At first, with little knowledge whatsoever about moths, the number and variety was simply bewildering. It had taken me several years to get familiar with the hundred or so local dragonflies, the local moths, on the other hand, numbered in the thousands! Himmelman’s book provided an in. And two online resources, bugguide.net and the moth photographers website, provided the added information and assistance needed to begin making identifications of some of the moths. A look at all the moths captured (nearly 250 photos) can be had by visiting my Flickr site and looking at the moth set. Many remain unidentified, and many have question marks appended to tentative identifications, so please feel free to leave corrections or identification suggestions.

Wavy-Lined Heterocampa Moth

Wavy-Lined Heterocampa Moth

A third excellent online resource is the Butterflies and Moths of North America website (BAMONA). The BAMONA website checklist for Rice County lists (at the time of this post) only eleven species. Over a period of three months, late in the year, missing the spring species and many of the summer species, I collected and photographed well over seventy different kinds of moths just in our driveway. Eventually, as time permits, I’ll submit my sightings to BAMONA. That there is a long way to go in documenting the moths of Rice County can be demonstrated by looking at the numbers of species for a better surveyed county. For instance, Wright County, northwest of Rice County, has 280 species on its list.

So, with more work to do and more discoveries to make, I’m looking forward to spring, and the commencement of a new mothing season. I’m also hoping to graduate to the more traditional white sheet this spring. And, if time permits, maybe try some other locations around the state. Who knows, I might even organize a mothing event for National Moth Week, July 19 – 27, 2014. Yes, there’s a national moth week…how cool is that!

White-lined Sphinx Moth

White-lined Sphinx Moth

Resources & Links

David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012.

John Himmelman. Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard. Down East Books. 2002.

Moth Photographers Group

bugguide.net

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Compost Fly

Ptecticus trivittatus

Ptecticus trivittatus

I captured this fly after dark, at our front porch light in early August, 2013. After capture, the fly spent the night in a vial in our refrigerator. The following morning as soon as there was plenty of light, I released it. Being chilled, it stuck around long enough for a few photographs.

Looking at this fly, and the photographs of the fly, I was immediately struck by it’s colors, the translucent greens and ambers, its size and shape, the venation and rippling look of flowing water in the wings. Only later could I identify it as a Yellow Soldier Fly, Ptecticus trivittatus. This fly, common in eastern North America, is most often observed near compost piles and fermenting fruit, so why was it hanging around the porch light after dark? Those big compound eyes and the pronounced ocelli indicate it’s well adapted to low light conditions; maybe it’s just that the earthy wine these flies seek, decanted from decaying lawn clippings and fallen fruit, is better in the shade. My subsequent encounters with this species placed it at our compost pile, but it also showed up again after dark, at the mothing light on several occasions.

Ptecticus trivittatus

Ptecticus trivittatus

Looking for more information about the fly on the web, I came across a short note in the journal Psyche by Philip Rau, author (along with his wife Nellie) of Wasp Studies Afield (1918). Here are a few passages in summation of our compost fly, in Rau’s characteristic flouncy style, written around 1930, in or near Kirkwood, Missouri:

“…these attractive greenish-colored flies were seen hovering in courtship dance above garbage heaps on the rear of a lot… To say that they dance incessantly is not wholly true for individuals often leave the throng to rest on a tin-can or bottle or cantaloupe skin… indeed, it’s a pretty sight to see a flock of these flies moving in a horizontal plane in more-or-less irregular circles and in figure eights just an inch or two above the mass of multi-colored refuse.”

Ptecticus trivittatus (total length=14mm)

Ptecticus trivittatus (total length=14mm)

Resources

Bugguide page for Ptecticus trivittatus.

Eric R. Eaton. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2007.

Phil Rau. Notes on the Courtship and Mating of the Fly, Ptecticus trivittatus Say. Psyche 44:141-142, 1937.

Trap Nest: Part Three

Trap Nest: Part Three

An examination of the open trap nest revealed four occupied cells and one empty cell, a vestibular space between the nest plug and the occupied cells. Three of the occupied cells contained potter wasp larvae, the fourth, the one closest to the entrance, did not. It held, apparently, the remains of the original provisioning, as if the potter wasp egg never hatched. Placing the nest and this suspect cell under the microscope, I discovered two tiny wasps (both dead), three tiny cocoons (one still full), and a bunch of mummified caterpillars. Something had obviously gone wrong in this cell.

Trap nest cell contents

Trap nest cell contents

The cell in question, being the closest to the entrance, was the last to be provisioned. It appears, bad luck for the provisioning wasp, that one of the caterpillars captured and placed in the cell must have been secreting a number of parasitoid wasp larvae. Like the clever Greeks in the Illiad, these wasp larvae emerged from their caterpillar host (the substitute for the Trojan Horse in this metaphor) at some point after being sealed into the cell. Unlike the successful Greeks, these stowaways perished. Not having the mandibles or the mud-dissolving spit required to breach the mud partitions, they died, immured in the dark. In describing this, I feel other literary echoes, namely the horror story The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe. Of course the fate of the caterpillars in this cell is hardly more disturbing than the fate of the other caterpillars stung into paralysis, then devoured alive.

These wasps really were small, just a couple millimeters in length, no larger than an Argentine Ant, that common pillager of kitchen sugar. The wing venation indicated the wasps were of the family Braconidae, a large family of parasitoids with more than 1,700 species in North America. Interestingly enough, some braconids have been used as biological agents in the control of agricultural pests, pests such as the Cabbage Butterfly. Many species are colored black and red or black and orange. Since βρακον is Greek for breeches (or pants in a less stilted dictionary) I wonder if the brightly colored hind legs resulted in the family name or if it’s those swollen thighs, the coxa, that gives the family its name? As far as I could determine, these particular wasps belong to the family Agathidinae, though in consulting a recent key to the Agathindinae I couldn’t make it past the first binomial because my microscope isn’t powerful enough to examine the shape of the foreclaws, so I don’t even have a guess at the species.

Braconid wasp

Braconid wasp

While the Braconidae are interesting in their own right, this failed cell also provided an opportunity to look over the provisions. Seven small green caterpillars, all probably of the same species (no prolegs on A3, patterned prothoracic shield) were preserved. According to both Cooper and Krombein, Ancistrocerus antilope (the likely provisioner of this nest), stuffs its nest full of small caterpillars, most often the tiny larvae of micro moths—the crambid moths, the twirler moths, the concealer moths—and that appears to be the case here. My best guess, after an hour browsing bugguide, would be a Tortricid moth larvae (Tortricidae, tribe Archipini; possibly Choristoneura sp. which seemed to have a very similar prothoracic shield). The cell also contained a different species of caterpillar, 2 to 3 times as large as the others (prolegs on A3-A6, no prothoracic shield). It seems likely that this caterpillar hosted the wasps.

Krombein also reported that Ancistrocerus antilope provisioned its cells, on average, with 3 to 10 larvae, usually of a single species, and usually of early instars, the selection of early instars no doubt lowering the likelihood of interring a larvae containing parasitoids. And Krombein, out of thousands of trap nests examined, reported braconids in just two! I feel fortunate to have happened upon this complication so early in my trap nesting career.

The nest, reassembled, has been overwintering on a frosty window sill in my cold, corner office, sitting alongside plastic cups with dragonfly nymphs, other containers filled with Lepidoptera cocoons, and several heaps of gathered plant galls. It’s a nice place to sit on a cold winter day, one large creature among numerous little creatures, all of us biding our time, preparing for warmer weather.

If I hadn’t set out this trap, I wouldn’t have learned of these wasps, or known about their presence in our back yard. I wonder, often, about how few people know or care about these small happenings. I worry, just as often, about my own lack of understanding, the little I really know about the complexities of even my backyard, let alone the larger world. And I suspect, more and more, that it’s simply a failing of patience and of imagination if, for instance, a certain moth caterpillar runs rampant in our gardens and we reach for insecticides, not trusting the unseen checks to their population provided by wasps and other predators.

I think the tension, here, is between what we manage and what we don’t manage. What escapes our hand widens and grows wild. This is not pristine wild, but salvaged wild, the wild that creeps back over the land, resettling the unweeded margins, homesteading the fallow flower pots, mining the messy understory and the fetid margins of the compost. When I see weeds I see hope; and when I see unmown, unsprayed lawns I see progress being made.

Resources:

Cooper, K.W. 1953. Biology of eumenine wasps. I. the ecology, predation and competition of Ancistrocerus antilope (Panzer). Trans. Am. Ent. Soc.79: 13-35.

Evans, H. E. 1963. Wasp Farm. New York: Natural History Press, Doubleday.

Krombein, K.V. 1967. Trap-nesting wasps and bees: life histories, nests, and associates. Smithsonian Press, Washington D.C. vi + 570 pp.