Bug of the Week – A Sproing of Springtails

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady was working on this week’s episode, about a lovely little spider, but then she took a walk at the north end of the Bog and encountered a mob of springtails.  She searched for a collective noun for springtails and found a few on-line discussions about it – “mass aggregation” is the science-y choice, but other suggestions were clusterswarmsprinkle (for a small swarm), furcula (in honor of the springtail’s jumping appendage – teachable moment), and sproing.

She was walking along a short, wetland boardwalk and noticed that the surface of a small pool of water looked gritty.  Pollen from above?  The maples aren’t in bloom yet, the ash trees are dead, and spring ephemerals are weeks away.  Not pollen.  But, on sticks and wet leaves at the edges of the pool and on the end of the boards there were masses of springtails, and she realized that the specks on the open water were springtails, too (the other folks on the trail gave her an extra-wide “social distance” berth when she said “Excellent” in a loud voice and started snapping pictures, apparently of the ground).

Springtails have appeared in these pages before, most recently in the form of “Semi-aquatic Springtails” https://uwm.edu/field-station/semi-aquatic-springtails/ in 2014 and “Super Springtails” https://uwm.edu/field-station/super-springtails/ in 2016.  You can find out about their basic biology (and vocabulary) in either.  The short version: Although they have six legs, springtails are not insects (anymore) but are now in their own Class, Collembola (making them peers of Insecta, which is also a Class).  They are wingless, but most have a furcula that allows them to leap into the air (every once in a while, as the BugLady watched, an individual would levitate above the crowd); they are decomposers, feeding mostly on rotting vegetable matter; they have taste organs at the tips of their antennae; and they usually live in moist habitats in or under leaf litter, bark, and fungi, but some species are found on/around water.  They’ve been here for 400 million years, give or take.

The first question is always “what is it?” because that answer opens the doors to finding out what it does for a living and where it fits in.  There is an aquatic springtail called Podura aquatica https://bugguide.net/node/view/180064/bgimage that has reddish antennae and legs and a pincer-like furcula.  The BugLady really squinted at her pictures and a few of the legs looked marginally purple, but mostly, not.  All the furculae she could see were straight.

The commonly-seen springtails here in God’s Country are snow fleas, in the genus Hypogastrura, which gather in Biblical numbers on snow and in tracks in the snow – boot, ski, snowmobile, and mammal https://bugguide.net/node/view/512490 and can be a nuisance in sap buckets, but which aren’t necessarily associated with water.  Their pedigree reads: Class Collembola (Springtails and allies), Order Poduromorpha, and Family Hypogastruridae, and there are about 80 members in the genus.  Most of the diagnostic features are seen more clearly with a microscope than with a camera.

But, the BugLady did a little midnight digging, and found the genus Hypogastrura in The Aquatic Invertebrates of Texas (“typically found on water’s surface, not truly aquatic”), and in Aquatic Insects of Michigan, which listed one genus member as “semi-aquatic” (found on the water’s surface) and two others as “periaquatic” (associated with the edges of aquatic environments). And one of the latter was Hypogastrura nivicola, the snow flea.

A few more words: “epineuston” and “superaquatic” are terms for organisms that float on top of the water.  “Nivicola means “snow dwelling;” its etymology detouring from Sanskrit, proto-Indo-European and proto-Italian through Greek and Latin before making its way into Old English and Old Irish.  And, on the topic of Hypogastrura matura, mentioned in the Michigan book but almost nowhere else (it must have been renamed), a Scandinavian resource referred to them as “urine insects.”  The BugLady Googled that one, of course, and found more urology hits than she cared to see.

Snow fleas are seriously tiny, 1 to 2 mm (about 1/16 of an inch).  For a picture of snow fleas next to a penny, see https://communityenvironment.unl.edu/snow-fleas.  They engage in mass migrations after snowmelt in spring and again in fall, capable (according to Walter H. Lyford in a paper published by the University of Notre Dame) of traveling 30 inches an hour across the damp leaves on the forest floor, and more than 18 feet per day, covering as much as 75 feet before disappearing under the leaves again.  Lyford tells us that a colony of snow fleas one foot across can contain one-half to one million individuals, that they grow throughout the fall, and that “mature insects are so heavy that the sound of their bodies landing on dry leaves can be heard distinctly.”  Springtail expert Kenneth Christiansen theorizes that these migrations allow them “to find new places to reproduce and to mix the gene pool.”

Their forays on the snow’s surface are searches for bits of fungi, algae and bacteria to eat.  Most cold-blooded critters get sluggish in winter, but snow fleas have developed a unique antifreeze, a glycine-rich protein that allows them to stay active at temperatures below freezing.  Practical applications for this chemical (beyond the very practical snow flea) include extending the life of transplant organs and producing better ice cream.

Food for thought: according to Oregon State University researcher Dr. Alan Moldenke, “Every time you take a step in a mature Oregon forest, your foot is being supported on the backs of 16,000 invertebrates held up by an average of 120,000 legs.”

Springtails rule.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Nematodes for Poets

Salutations, BugFans,

The BugLady has been elbow deep in her tax packet, and she’s bummed by the global pandemic (as one author put it, we’ll probably learn a lesson from this affair, but probably not the lesson that needs learning), so she offers this rerun from 2014, which includes an suggestion of what the earth might look like if we vanish from the face of it (the Beat, BugFan Tom, will go on).

Many autumns ago, the BugLady was out in the field catching grasshoppers with BugFan Mary and some school kids, and Mary said, “These grasshoppers are dead; they just don’t know it yet.”  And while it is true that the lives of most adult insects end by the first hard frosts, the Grim Reaper may be assisted in those waning days by nematodes.

Fast Forward to a more recent spring, when the BugLady was photographing critters at the Ephemeral Pond and this wee beastie swam past her lens.  Nematodes (and the BugLady has her fingers crossed that this is, indeed, a nematode) are not on many people’s radar.  In fact, “Nematodes are probably the commonest multicellular organism that you’ve never heard of and have hardly ever seen (Platt, 1994).

So – “WHAT ARE NEMATODES?”  They’re not insects or spiders or millipedes or anything with legs.  Not earthworms or leeches or anything with segments.  They belong to the Phylum Nematoda/Nemata (from the Ancient Greek “nema,” for “thread” and “eides” for “species).  They are the Roundworms.  Their classification has ever been a work in progress; they have been a Family and then an Order and are now their own Phylum (from which the superficially similar Horsehair worms, of previous BOTW fame, have been evicted).  There are many known species of nematodes and many more to discover, and we don’t know the biographies of most of them – even, in some cases, enough to know if they are properly placed in the Phylum.  And, of course, they have their own website.

Nematodes are a gigantic topic – people get PhD’s in Nematodes – so this is necessarily the introductory course.  Put up your feet – it’s a story that takes some telling.

JUST HOW MANY NEMATODES ARE OUT THERE?  Huge numbers of species and well-nigh uncountable numbers of individuals, that’s how many.  By some reckonings, four out of every five multicellular animals on the planet are nematodes (that’s individuals, not species).  The more-than-30,000 known species may jump to a million by the time the taxonomic dust settles.

Nematodes seem to inspire in people a need for over-the-top imagery.  In 1914 Nathan Cobb calculated that “if the nematodes resident in a single acre of soil near San Antonio, Texas, USA, were to proceed in head-to-tail procession to Washington D.C., some 2000 miles away, the first nematode would reach Washington before the rear of the procession left San Antonio!

According to a website that’s no longer up, “A square meter of mud from an inshore area near the coast of Holland was measured to contain over 4 million nematodes. Good farm soil as well as containing a large number of earthworms can also contain from several hundred million to several billion nematodes per acre. A single decomposing apple on an orchard floor has had 90,000 nematodes counted in it of several species and a single decomposing fig around 50,000 of at least eight species.”

One study in Colorado estimated that nematodes consumed about as much grass as a prairie dog colony http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/nematode/soil_nematode.htm (Featured Creatures is a great resource).

WHERE DO THEY LIVE?  Everywhere.  It’s no hyperbole to say that nematodes are ubiquitous.  They occupy almost every habitat, from the ridiculous (vinegar, under the beer coasters in a German study, in the placentas of sperm whales, and in the right kidneys of minks) to the extreme (from the Poles to deep oceanic trenches to mountain tops to the depths of South African gold mines to hot sulfur springs).  They are found in plants, in animals, in water, and in soil.  They greatly outnumber the other animals found in their habitats – Wikipedia says that they make up 90% of all life forms on the ocean floor.

A century ago Nathan Cobb wrote: In short, if all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable, since for every massing of human beings there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites (Yearbook United States Department of Agriculture, 1914).

A century later, an article in a 2013 Scientific American was titled “Nematode Roundworms Own This Place.”  http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/2013/02/09/parasitic-roundworms-own-this-place/.

WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE?  In appearance (and in lifestyle), there are many (many) variations on the basic theme, but the Ancient Greek imagery still applies – “thread species.”  They are second only to (ahem) insects in diversity.  They have been described as a “tube within a tube,” a gut surrounded by a cuticle with a cavity called a hemocoel between the two.  Most are very small (well, except for the one in the sperm whale, which can exceed eight meters in length), translucent/transparent (any pigment you see comes from their food), and round in cross section (roundworms).  Muscles run lengthwise and so do nerves, except for a ring of nerves and ganglia around the pharynx that constitutes the animal’s “brain.”  Sensory hairs (setae) permit a sense of touch, and two pits on the head allow for chemoreception.  There’s no vascular or respiratory system; nutrients and oxygen get into the cells, and wastes exit the cells, via diffusion.  Nematodes move by contracting their longitudinal muscles and whipping back and forth, an action that also moves food through the gut and facilitates excretion.

WHAT DO THEY DO FOR A LIVING?  Anything that exists in such astonishing numbers has got to play an important part in its ecosystems.  Nematodes occupy every strand of the food web – carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, scavengers and decomposers; they are eaten by many other animals, including their brethren – even by a group of carnivorous (“nematophageous”) fungi (including Oyster mushrooms – Pleurotus).  It turns out that the nematodes communicate with each other using chemicals and that the fungal/mycelial strands can detect these signals.  They form special noose-like structures and lasso soil nematodes as they wriggle through (see a video at https://microbialmenagerie.com/fungi-carnivore-chemical-eavesdropping/).  It’s a complex entrapment that, none-the-less, as many as 80% of its victims escape; it’s theorized that the nematodes that are snagged may have existing sensory problems that don’t alert them in time.

Nematodes are informally grouped as “free living” (40% of species) and parasitic (44% of the remaining species feed on animals and 15% on plants) (though the BugLady found one source that switched the last two numbers and another whose numbers landed in between).  The BugLady couldn’t find a satisfactory definition of the criteria for this division, since herbivorous and carnivorous behavior is attributed to both groups.  Living outside rather than inside its food source?  In scanning the literature, it almost seemed like the pejorative “parasitic” may simply refer to behavior analogous to the lifestyle of a flea, but it often seems to be applied to species that damage our plants and animals and ourselves.  In both groups, feeding habits and targets can be highly specialized.  Some parasitic species concentrate on vertebrates, including humans and their pets (roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, pinworms, and a variety of other conditions including elephantiasis are chalked up to nematodes), and others are serious pests of lawns, crops and gardens.  Free living species, both aquatic and terrestrial, eat algae, fungi, bacteria, plants, tiny animals, and dead organic matter, and some are great recyclers.

Many nematodes, both herbivores and carnivores, feed by inserting a rigid “stylet” into their food source – in some the stylet is hollow and acts as a drinking straw.  Others feed by “gulping” a food particle whole through a mouth opening.  They may have rasping/crushing “teeth” within the pharynx – or not.  You can tell what a nematode eats by looking in its mouth.

Grasshopper-eating nematodes?  Yes, there are “insect parasitic nematodes” (IPNs) that feed within insects.  Once inside, they release bacteria that kill their host, and then they feed on the bacteria and on their hosts’ decomposing tissue.  IPNs are potential biological control agents for turf pests, mainly caterpillars and beetle grubs.  For more information see http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/beneficial/misc/mermis_nigrescens.htm#top (not for the faint of heart).

HOW DO BIG NEMATODES MAKE LITTLE NEMATODES?  Usually, males insert a chitonous spicule into the operative female opening (in some species, they simply puncture the female’s cuticle anywhere – “traumatic fertilization”) and “amoeboid sperm” crawl in.  Most species lay eggs that produce larvae that look pretty much like Mom and Dad.

AND AQUATIC NEMATODES?  Many freshwater nematodes are in the 1 mm size class.  About half of the known nematodes are marine (salt water); the rest are found in soil or fresh water.  Fresh-water nematodes live in still water and fast, rocky or mucky, and on damp shorelines.  Most fresh-water nematodes can produce a mucous strand that fixes them temporarily to their substrate.  It’s not uncommon for them to carry and transmit disease-causing protozoans.

ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT NEMATODES?

  • Well, they’ve been around for a long time.  It’s hard for something as small and soft as a nematode to fossilize, but fossil nematodes have been found that date back 300 million-plus years, and they may have been around for 500 million years.  They’ve been found in amber.  A dissenting (outlier) note from the U of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences – “Members of the phylum Nematoda (round worms) have been in existence for an estimated one billion years, making them one of the most ancient and diverse types of animals on earth” (Wang et al. 1999).
  • Nematode-borne diseases were noted in Chinese writings from 2700 BC.
  • Agriculture has a love-hate relationship with nematodes.  “Good” nematodes prey on plant pests; “bad” nematodes are plant pests and spread diseases, besides.
  • Many species can get through a drought by completely turning off their metabolism (cryptobiosis), sometimes for as long as a quarter of a century (!), resurrecting themselves when favorable conditions return (they travel during this phase, too, blowing across the landscape with the dust.  Otherwise, a really peppy soil nematode might only move the distance of a meter during its lifetime).
  • Nematodes are considered indicator species for various kinds of pollutants, toxins, and general environmental quality.
  • The gazillions of soil nematodes “mix” soils like earthworms do.
  • According to EOL (Encyclopedia of Earth) “Eutely [great Scrabble word] is a phenomenon found in a few organisms, including nematodes, wherein each member of a species has exactly the same number of cells.”  In one species, males have 1031 cells and females have 959.

Whew!

For more info and a bunch of videos, see http://www.davidmoore.org.uk/21st_Century_Guidebook_to_Fungi_PLATINUM/Ch15_06.htm.

Oh yeah (belatedly) – Parenthesis Alert (as the poet John Ciardi once said, “My life is lived in parentheses”).

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Bugs without Bios IX

Howdy, BugFans,

Bugs without Bios celebrates the small-but-mighty insects that, mostly unsung, sneak below our radar daily.  Today’s catch have three things in common – their identifications are all “probable;” they’re all carnivores; and on each of the three, the BugLady’s Google search ran out in fewer than ten pages.

CALLEIDA PUNCTATA

This metallic beetle is Calleida punctata (probably – there’s a very similar species that’s more southerly in range and we are north of the overlap zone).  No common name.  It’s a tiny beetle in a large family, Carabidae – the Ground beetles – that includes some rather substantial species, like the 1 ¼” Fiery Searcher https://bugguide.net/node/view/1546816/bgimage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/648179/bgimage.  There are about 34,000 species of Ground beetles worldwide; about 2,500 in North America.  While there are a few herbivores and omnivores in the crowd, and some larvae that are herbivores or parasitoids, most species are predators.  Here’s a better shot of one: https://bugguide.net/node/view/1073580/bgimage.

Calleida punctata (Calleida means “beautiful form”) is about 1/3 inch long (for scale, here’s one on a single milkweed flower https://bugguide.net/node/view/1468655/bgimage).  It’s found in the northeastern quadrant of North America from Quebec to South Carolina to Kansas to Manitoba (though they were listed in Panama and in a paper about insects found on a college campus in Pakistan, too.  Our North American fauna includes 64 non-native carabids, and that door opens both ways).

As their name suggests, ground beetles are often found on the ground, where they’re harder to spot https://bugguide.net/node/view/269341/bgimage, but members of this genus also tend to be more arboreal and are seen on leaves and flowers (OK, they’re sometimes “planticolous,” from the Latin “colous” meaning to inhabit, live in/on, dwell, etc.).  The Illinois Wildflowers website associates them with goldenrods.  Their prey is small insects, including beetles https://bugguide.net/node/view/1411607/bgimage, and in a paper about the first Minnesota record of the beetle in 2000, author Paul Tinerella noted that the adults are said to eat caterpillars.

BRANDED PINION

First off, the name.  Please do not ask the BugLady where these moths in the Owlet family (Noctuidae) and the Cutworm/Dart subfamily (Noctuinae) and the genus Lithophane got the name Pinion moths.  Pinion pine?  Pinion feathers?  Rack and pinion?  Don’t know.  But – the BugLady has long said that the people who name moths (and tiger beetles) seem to love their work.  For proof, check the names of tiger beetles and of underwing moths.  Along with common names that describe their colors and patterns and discoverers, there are Nameless, Immigrant, Wanton, Shivering (they shiver before flight on cool days to warm the muscles in their thorax), Singed, Luke-warm, Dowdy, and Anti-pinions.

Adult pinions tend to be drab, with a noticeably “square-shouldered” look, and because of their phenology, many of them are loosely called “winter moths.”  Overall, they are northern moths, associated with woodlands and edges.  Pinions are active late in fall, but they overwinter as adults and then fly, mate, and lay eggs early in the next spring.  Pinion larvae eat the leaves of woody plants; some are generalists and some are host-specific – and some supplement their diet of plants with a caterpillar or two, even those of their own species (and isn’t this a dynamite picture https://www.pbase.com/spjaffe/image/112948427!).

The caterpillar on the tree trunk is (probably) a Branded/Dimorphic Pinion (Lithophane patefacta) (“Litho” means “stone” and “phane” means “looks like”).  It’s found in eastern Canada, south to the Carolinas and west to Wisconsin, and there are some records for British Columbia, Louisiana, and maybe northern Florida.  Wagner, in Caterpillars of Eastern North America calls the Branded pinion “perhaps the most widespread and abundant pinion in the Southeast.”  Adults come in light or dark forms http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=9886 – northern moths are commonly lighter than the darker, southern forms.  Caterpillars come in different colors, too – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1728843/bgimage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/20327/bgimage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1728844/bgimage, and Wagner speculates that the darker, southern morphs of caterpillars may be more cannibalistic than the paler forms.  Caterpillars especially like sugar maple, but they also feed on cherry, oak, and hickory.  And other caterpillars.

WHIRLIGIG MITE

As seasoned BugFans know, the BugLady is attracted to easily-overlooked critters.  When she saw these 1/16th-to-1/8th of an inch mites on her porch rail (near her geraniums) last summer, she wondered if they might be the notorious, plant-eating spider mites, but she thinks they were “whirligig mites” in the genus Anystis.  It’s in the huge mite order Trombidiformes (26,000 species worldwide) and in the family Anystidae, the whirligig mites. For better pictures: https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/viewSpecies.php?species=18548.

As commenter “theridula” says, in helping to ID a mite on the Project Noah website, “Mite identification is not easy and frustration is inevitable.”  Amen.  Whirligig?  These are pretty peppy mites.  Theridula continues “you said the mite was “quite fast”, automatically dismissing nearly all spider mites (Tetranychidae) which you should think of as slow cows browsing on plant material.  ‘Quite fast’ should make you start thinking predator. After all, you need to be fast to chase down prey.

 

“Then you come to the nearly triangular body, truncated at the posterior, combined with strong latigrade legs that seem to radiate from a central point. Throw in the fast erratic running behavior and that it was found off of the ground and you have excellent diagnostic characters for the genus Anystis (whirligig mites).”  The arrangement of their legs also allows them to pivot “on a dime,” which adds to their whirligig-ness (the BugLady wonders how many could sit on a dime).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anystis is a tiny carnivore that preys on small invertebrates, including harmful species of mites (scroll down to the fourth page for a shot of Anystis baccarum and prey https://eservices.ruralni.gov.uk/pdfs/crops/Anystis%20baccarum.pdf), and most of the Anystis hits on the internet have to do with its diet.  Various species, especially A. agilis, which eats an average of 39 aphids daily in vineyards and also likes grape leafhoppers, and the cosmopolitan A. baccarum, which preys on pests of orchards and tea plants, are effective biological controls of problem species.  It would behoove fruit growers to recognize these helpful little critters so that they don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Not a “chewer,” a mite punctures its prey and sucks out the juices.

Anystis baccarum (and, the BugLady assumes, other genus members, but she could not confirm it) reproduces by parthenogenesis.  Females produce only females; there are no males in the population.  Eggs are laid under tree bark or in the surrounding soil, and newly-hatched mites travel up the trunk looking for food.  They take a month to mature and don’t live long as adults.

If you check redbubble, you might (mite) find an Anaystis baccarum greeting card.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Texas Ironclad Beetle

Howdy, BugFans,

When BugFan Kine sent this “what is it” picture, the BugLady’s first reaction was to raise her hand and say “Teacher, teacher!  Ask me!  Ask me!”  She didn’t recall its name, but she knew she had seen a picture of it in Kaufman’s Field Guide to Insects of North America (it’s also in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders).  It has the look of a darkling beetle (family Tenebrionidae), but it’s in the (fairly closely-related) family Zopheridae (no common name) and the subfamily Zopherinae – the ironclad beetles.  Thanks, Kine!

Not a Wisconsin beetle.

Fascinating Ironclad Beetle Fact#1:  They’re called Ironclad beetles because they have a phenomenally strong exoskeleton.  So strong that you can’t kill them by stepping on them (in the words of Alejandro Santillana of the University of Texas, “Step on one and it will probably just give a coleopteran shrug and walk away.”).  So strong that if you are able to kill one, you can’t mount it on an insect pin without first drilling a hole in it.

There are 19 species in the genus Zopherus, and they’re found from Venezuela to Texas, west to California, including Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.  Ten species of Zopherus live in North America.  Zopherus means “dusky” or “gloomy” in Greek (today’s beetle is the flashiest) – here are a few other species:  https://bugguide.net/node/view/919514/bgpage,

https://bugguide.net/node/view/1179173/bgimage,

https://bugguide.net/node/view/1374967/bgimage).

Kine’s beetle, the Texas or Southwestern ironclad beetle (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani) also comes in an all-black model (https://bugguide.net/node/view/389911).  Its ventral side is fancy (https://bugguide.net/node/view/686104/bgimage), and so is its face (https://bugguide.net/node/view/269544/bgimage).  Like other family members, its head is partly sheltered/pulled under the front edge of the thorax, making it look like it’s thinking about a somersault.

One source says that Texas ironclad beetles look as though a random bunch of black paint droplets fell on them (another source suggests that they’re bird-poop mimics).  Nodulosus refers to the lumps/nodes on the beetle’s back, especially on the elytra (wing covers), and this species also has four noticeable tubercles on the rear edge of the elytra.

The job of the elytra, which are the hardened, front pair of flying wings, is to protect the membranous flying wings that are folded beneath them, a beetle invention that allows them to crawl under logs and rocks without shredding those delicate wings.  But Mother Nature has played a little trick here – beetles in this genus, indeed, in this family, often lack flying wings, and their elytra are fused together.  No flying wings = no flying.

They live in east and central Texas, south into northeastern Mexico.  Adults are sometimes seen on the trunks of pecan, oak, and elm trees where, despite/because of their coloration, they blend in pretty well.  The larvae are found in dead trees and may eat fungi within the rotting wood, but in his blog arrantsoutdoors, Josh Arrants says that “We are sure it eats lichens, dead wood and plant material, even taking fungi…. We also believe that all stages of (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani) eat lichens on dead, or mostly dead, trees.”

There is very little biographical information about this striking, relatively-common-within-its-range, inch-long beetle!  Presumably, eggs are laid in bark crevices, which, says Arrants, provides “a highly probable area for the larvae to be able to find and consume lichens.”  Here’s a mating pair https://bugguide.net/node/view/1506208/bgimage.

Fascinating Ironclad Beetle Fact#2:  In her article about them in the Texas Co-op Power newsletter, Sheryl Smith-Rodgers calls them “Lazarus bugs.”  On several occasions, she fished “dead” beetles from the bottom of water buckets, only to have them revive and walk away.  They are even hard to kill with the standard-issue insect killing jars.

Fascinating Ironclad Beetle Fact#3:  When alarmed, Ironclad beetles play dead (tonic immobility or death feigning or thanatosis are fancier names), and they can play for longer than most people have the patience to wait for their revival.  They curl up their legs and tuck in their antennae to protect them https://bugguide.net/node/view/686069/bgimage.

Fascinating Ironclad Beetle Fact#4:  With the help of some glue and sparkly stones, some genus members, including this species, are used as live jewelry in parts of Mexico https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zopherus#/media/File:Zopheridae_jewelry_sjh.jpg.

MIND-BLOWING Ironclad Beetle Fact:  Science, of course, is interested in this impenetrable insect.  The composition of the layers of its exoskeleton have been parsed, and the potential applications are pretty amazing.  It is being “copied” in a design for the suspension system of combat vehicles, with the hope that it can bounce back after an IED or other explosion.  Even better, First Place in the 2018 NASA competition to design habitats for Mars (the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge) went to Team Zopherus (https://armoneyandpolitics.com/arkansas-architect-nasa-competition-mars/)!

Mother Nature creates, and man imitates.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Wasp Mantidfly

Greetings, BugFans,

Phoresy, hypermetamorphosis, parasites, Batesian mimicry, aggregation pheromones (it’s Science Vocabulary Day), and an insect that Entomologist Eric Eaton says resembles “a science experiment gone horribly wrong.”  This one has it all.

A number of years ago, BugFan Tod sent the BugLady a “what-is-it” picture of a mantisfly on a door-jamb, and she confesses to feeling a twinge of envy.  This fall, BugFan Tom shared this shot, taken by his wife Andrea, and the BugLady got a little greener.  She seriously wants to see one of these curious insects.

Mantisflies/mantidflies, family Mantispidae, are in the order Neuroptera (“nerve wings”), a very cool order that includes antlions and lacewings, plus owlflies https://bugguide.net/node/view/6309/bgpage and a few other dynamite groups.  Neuroptera has been pared down – the order used to include the dobsonfly bunch and the snakefly bunch, and back in Linnaeus’ time, dragonflies and damselflies, too.  Neuropterans’ four, conspicuously-veined, oval-ish wings are about equal in size, and they have conspicuous eyes, long antennae, and biting/chewing mouthparts. They’re clumsy flyers.  They are one of a few primitive groups that develops by complete metamorphosis (egg-larva-pupa-adult).  While adults may eat nectar and/or their fellow invertebrates, their larvae are mostly carnivores.  More about that in a bit.

There are about 400 species in the mantidfly family – 13 in North America – and they’re most diverse just about anywhere south of Wisconsin.  They’re not related to praying mantises and they’re not related to flies, either.

Wasp/Brown Mantidflies (Climaciella brunnea), in the subfamily Mantispinae, are found in open areas and edges from Costa Rica to southern Canada.  They’re about an inch long, and Eaton describes them thus: “In the case of C. brunnea, the body form has been further modified to look like a paper wasp.  The resemblance is uncanny.  The base of the abdomen is constricted into a ‘wasp waist,’ and the wings are rotated such that they fold over the back instead of pitched ‘roof-like’ as in other mantispids.  Even more amazing, the leading edge of each wing is darkened, to resemble the longitudinal fold in the wings of vespid wasps.  When startled, the Wasp Mantid even splays its wings like an agitated paper wasp.”

Here are views from several angles: https://bugguide.net/node/view/834000/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1405724/bgimage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1697163/bgimage.

Because they’re such good mimics, Wasp Mantisflies are probably overlooked frequently (especially by the BugLady).  They come in five color phases, and each matches a Polistes (paper) wasp that’s found within its range.  Here are some of the color phases along with the associated wasp:

“Red” mantidfly – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1664363/bgimage and wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/875828/bgimage,

Black with yellow abdomen – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1537582/bgimage and wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/185919/bgimage,

Black with yellow edges – https://bugguide.net/node/view/858351/bgimage and wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/1599227/bgimage, and

Red with yellow stripes – https://bugguide.net/node/view/22331/bgimage and wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/1477477/bgimage.

Batesian mimicry is mimicry wherein an animal that is edible disguises itself as something that is either noxious or harmful, benefitting from its doppelganger’s reputation.

They are generally solitary, but in spring, when a young mantidfly’s fancy turns to love, he releases an aggregation pheromone that attracts females.  Mafham and Mafham, in The Encyclopedia of Land Invertebrate Behaviour, tell us that pheromones help the male to distinguish his potential mate from its look-alike wasp; “the male C. brunnea broadcasts an olfactory message that can only be deciphered by the correct recipient.  He produces a very strong pheromone that can easily be detected as much as 3m away.  This presumably accounts for the aggregations of females sometimes noted around males.  During courtship, the male merely raises and lowers his wings, while rowing with his front legs.  Copulation lasts as along as 24 hours, during which he attaches a white spermatophore to the female.  She carries this around for 24 to 36 hours, during which time it is gradually absorbed into her body.”  (Here, according to the captions, is a spermatophore being carried by a male https://bugguide.net/node/view/1692664/bgimage).  Males live for just a few days, but females live for a month or more.

She lays her eggs (https://bugguide.net/node/view/216539/bgimage) – as many as 3,000 of them – on low stalks and leaves, and the larvae that hatch undergo a process called hypermetamorphosis.  Larvae of most insects don’t change much after hatching; they just eat and grow until they are mature enough to pupate.  The larvae of Mantidflies in the subfamily Mantispinae (along with those of a few beetle and fly families) emerge as active, long-legged super-larvae (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1120008/bgimage).

Why?  Because they are parasites, and Mom hasn’t provided for them, so it’s up to them to find their own food.  In the case of the Wasp Mantidfly, the robust and mobile youngsters drop to the ground and look for passing wolf and other ground-hunting spiders.  They are far more common on wolf spiders than, say, on crab spiders that dwell in the flower tops.

When it locates a female spider, a larva climbs aboard and rides along (this hitchhiking is called phoresy) (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1028990/bgimage) and waits for the spider to make her egg case.  If its spider is a male, the larva will jump ship when he mates, and there may be a little wear and tear on a spider that doesn’t spin an egg case in a timely manner (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1120009/bgimage).  Sources generally agree that the larva’s mouthparts don’t allow it to chew into a finished egg case, so it must slip inside as the case is being spun.  Once it’s sealed inside, it eats the contents of the spider’s eggs (https://bugguide.net/node/view/288398/bgimage); once inside, it doesn’t need its long legs to get around anymore, so subsequent larval instars (stages) look more grub-like.  Eventually, it pupates inside the egg case (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1132517/bgimage) before emerging as an adult (https://bugguide.net/node/view/675707/bgimage).

Adults feed on nectar and on small insects like flies and moths that visit flowers and that they grab like a mantis does (https://bugguide.net/node/view/962799/bgimage).  Sometimes they hang on the undersides of flowers (note to self – a wasp under a flowers may not be a wasp).

Here’s Eric Eaton’s full article: http://bugeric.blogspot.com/2014/08/wasp-mantisfly.html, and here’s a nice article about a mantidfly from a different subfamily, with a video of a mobile pupa that’s walked up a trunk to emerge, and the newly-emerged adult sipping something from the mosses/leafy liverworts. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/12/06/mantis-fly-has-a-walking-pupa-that-climbs-trees-before-hatching/.

Such a cool insect……

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Bugs in the News VIII

Howdy, BugFans,

The “Bugs in the News” folder is overflowing again.  Here’s a tasteful selection of bizarre, scary, and thought-provoking information about the wonderful world of invertebrates.  Thanks to those who shared articles.

MOTHS

We’ve been getting it wrong – again: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/10/textbook-evolutionary-story-wrong/600295/.

ANTS

are always up to something:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/texan-rodeo-ants-ride-backs-bigger-ants-180973788/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20191216-daily-responsive&spMailingID=41351776&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1661546351&spReportId=MTY2MTU0NjM1MQS2.

BUMBLEBEES

The BugLady always thinks that bumble bees look like they’re having fun, and now it turns out that they’ve been doing some higher-order mental processing, too: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/humans-bumblebees-may-create-mental-images-their-brains-180974248/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200221-daily-responsive&spMailingID=41844780&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1701814900&spReportId=MTcwMTgxNDkwMAS2.

Bumble bee populations are declining, and, as with other insects, it’s hard for scientists to define the problem when, for most species, there are few baseline population studies.  You can help!  Census the bumblebees that you see with the help of the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade.  Observe them casually or establish a bumble bee route.  See http://wiatri.net/inventory/bbb/ for information about participating in this Citizen Science project.  The good news is that you don’t have to know what you’re looking at – just send pictures per their instructions and they’ll do the heavy lifting.

TICKS

The BugLady’s paternal grandfather liked his beef cooked very well done, but her maternal grandfather used to say that you should just run the cow past the grill (the union between the offspring of these two men was a mixed marriage, indeed).  For those of us who like red meat, here’s a disturbing article about ticks and alpha-gal: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/06/25/621080751/red-meat-allergies-caused-by-tick-bites-are-on-the-rise?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20180625&utm_campaign=news&utm_term=.

It’s never too early to start thinking about tick checks in Wisconsin – the BugLady has seen deer/black-legged ticks (of Lyme disease fame) on warm days in February.

TOO MANY INSECTS

Mind-boggling pictures of a truly Biblical plague https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2020/01/photos-worst-locust-swarms-decades-hit-east-africa/605653/?te=1&nl=morning-briefing&emc=edit_NN_p_20200129&section=whatElse&campaign_id=9&instance_id=15542&segment_id=20754&user_id=48ae4cbec4a693ab58f7a257b0a261ad&regi_id=106911568ion=whatElse.

NOT ENOUGH INSECTS

Articles from all parts of the globe continue to sound the alarm about drastically decreasing insect populations.  It’s important to grasp the potentially profound fall-out from these population declines.  Insects provide important ecological services like pest control and undertaking; they pollinate our food (or the food of our food), and they are important members of an awful lot of food chains and webs (they are bird food, trout food, dragonfly food, etc.) (yeah – preaching to the choir, here).  Here are a few articles about:

The windshield test – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/12/car-splatometer-tests-reveal-huge-decline-number-insects

Insects and light pollution – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/22/light-pollution-insect-apocalypse?CMP=share_btn_fb&fbclid=IwAR3yfD3bEkMXQz115_6_FH6spPqCgPEc4Yeb-w–NivVfqmPXPuXADhfdjY

Insects and climate change and “Season creep:” https://www.npr.org/2018/07/23/630181622/spring-is-springing-sooner-throwing-natures-rhythms-out-of-whack?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20180723&utm_campaign=news&utm_term=nprnews.

And mayflies.  In some lakeside and riverside communities, the annual synchronized “hatch” of zillions of mayflies (locally called “lake flies”) requires the deployment of big snow plows to clear the slippery insects off of roads and bridges. What happens when their numbers flag? https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/massive-mayfly-swarms-are-getting-smaller-180974046/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200123-daily-responsive&spMailingID=41612611&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1682176824&spReportId=MTY4MjE3NjgyNAS2

What can we do to help insects?

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Neokolla hieroglyphica Leafhopper

Greetings, BugFans,

Although this cute little leafhopper has several names – Neokolla hieroglyphica and, formerly Graphocephala gothica (and see “Extra credit” below), it doesn’t have a common name.  It’s in the leafhopper family Cicadellidae (sik-ah-DELL-ih-dee says bugguide.net), a group that the BugLady used to call “pop-bugs” in her youth because they landed on her jeans in the fields, and when she touched their rear ends, they popped away.  There are about 3,000 species of these little bugs in North America and about 22,000 described species elsewhere, but experts estimate that there may be three times that number still awaiting discovery (it’s always refreshing to reaffirm that we don’t know everything yet).

You can tell leafhoppers from similarly-sized spittlebugs by the row of spines on the hind legs of the leafhoppers https://bugguide.net/node/view/1752304/bgimage.

Leafhoppers are small, usually less than 1/3 of an inch, and yet their numbers include a few migratory species that recolonize the north in spring and retreat in fall.  They’re in every habitat where you find vascular plants, and they feed on plant sap that they access by poking a hole in a stem with their sharp mouthparts.  They are among the insects that release excess food from their rear end in the form of a sugar solution called honeydew.  Honeydew is an important carbohydrate that is eaten by other insects, but leafhoppers are not farmed by ants like some other honeydew producers are.  Some leafhoppers are generalist feeders and some prefer only a short list of hosts.

Many are drab, but there are some pretty spiffy leafhoppers out there: https://bugguide.net/node/view/55317/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/688689/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/368756/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1262101/bgpage,

https://bugguide.net/node/view/318789/bgpage.

Female leafhoppers insert eggs into a plant, and depending on geography and season, the eggs hatch in a month to a year.  They have incomplete metamorphosis – the nymphs hatch out looking not-unlike their parents.  They eat and molt and grow, adding a few body parts and lengthening their wings, achieving adulthood in their final molt rather than via a resting stage in a pupal case.

Neokolla hieroglyphica can be found in grassy areas across the northern US and southern Canada (and south, in a few locales in California and the Southeast).  Bugguide.net calls it “The only pink leafhopper east of the Rockies” but adds that the color can be variable: (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1724691/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/520961/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/70866/bgimage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/344994/bgimage.  An “M/omega”-shaped mark on the top of the head is diagnostic https://bugguide.net/node/view/734068/bgimage.

The translucent-ish nymphs look metallic https://bugguide.net/node/view/71461/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1350037/bgimage (what would we do without bugguide.net?).

Neokolla hieroglyphica is fond of alfalfa, and it may be a vector of a virus called alfalfa witches broom.  The wonderful Illinois Wildflowers (https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/) associates them with goldenrods, and another source connects them with willows.

Fun Leafhopper Fact # 1: Neokolla is in the subfamily Cicadellinae, called the Sharpshooters because when they release honeydew, you can hear a faint sound like a teeny popgun.

Fun Leafhopper Fact # 2: leafhoppers sing, but we can’t hear them.  Structures on the abdomen allow them to make sound.

Fun Leafhopper Fact # 3: leafhoppers produce “brochosomes,” waxy substances made of proteins and fats that they distribute on their body to waterproof it.  Sometimes it’s smeared on unevenly and forms blotches https://bugguide.net/node/view/1370252/bgpage, and some species put some on their egg scars to prevent dehydration.  Check Wikipedia’s article about brochosomes, complete with pictures (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brochosome).

Leafhopper Fun Fact #4: you can buy one from BioQuip Biological Supply Company for $5.00.

Extra Credit:

For extra credit, the BugLady is including this write-up from the North Carolina biodiversity project about the classification of Neokolla hieroglyphica (these people seriously want to get it right!): “G. gothica and G hieroglyphica are somewhat of a taxonomic mess and can be quite confusing: while many experts treat these two species as belonging in Graphocephala, some place them in the genus Neokolla. Both species were initially described as Tettigonia gothica and T. hieroglyphica [BugLady note: Tettigonia is a European genus of katydids, which is a whole different discussion]. When they were elevated to Neokolla, both were synonymized under Neokolla hieroglyphica (in particular, T. gothica was N. h. atra and T. hieroglyphica was N. h. hieroglyphica). Young (1977), who revised Cicadellini comprehensively, treated Neokolla as a junior synonym of Graphocephala, something that has been followed by other leafhopper workers. Neokolla was later resurrected in a paper based on an interpretation of Say’s original description of the type species of Neokolla (hieroglyphica Say) that was contrary to those of prior authors (plus, Say’s description could apply to either hieroglyphica or gothica, as evident by both being placed under the same species within Neokolla). Neokolla species in general are quite variable in coloration, with some of these colors getting named forms, which some have then elevated to species status. As a result of this taxonomic disagreement, Graphocephala gothica is what some are currently calling Neokolla hieroglyphica, and Graphocephala hieroglyphica appears to be what some are calling Neokolla uhleri (though uhleri, considered for some time as a variety of hieroglyphica, was depicted in older literature as having quite different head markings). For now we will go with what takes precedence, following Young, but as you can see this taxonomic reshuffling has resulted in quite a bit of confusion and complexity.

And the stink bug nymph is pretty cute, too.

The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Small Magpie Moth Mystery

Greetings, BugFans,

A few days ago, the BugLady was mulling over which insect she was going to feature in the next BOTW.  She headed out the door to hike to the mailbox, and there, on the inside of the storm door, trapped between it and the back door, sat this beautiful Small magpie moth.  The BugLady managed a few mediocre shots (on a west-facing glass door at twilight), but happily, other people have done better: https://bugguide.net/node/view/105683 (some have a broader band on the edge of the wing https://bugguide.net/node/view/1187270/bgimage),  https://bugguide.net/node/view/527448https://bugguide.net/node/view/1475330/bgimage,

https://bugguide.net/node/view/20549/bgimage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/141026/bgimage.

Small magpie moths (Anania hortulata) are in the Crambid snout moth family Crambidae. Overall, it’s a pretty drab group of moths, with some delightful exceptions like these, of previous BOTW fame: Bi-colored pyrausta https://bugguide.net/node/view/851405/bgpage, Orange mint moth https://bugguide.net/node/view/1119674/bgimage, Raspberry pyrausta https://bugguide.net/node/view/1382922/bgimage and the White-spotted sable https://bugguide.net/node/view/37715/bgimage.  Crambidae is a small family of 157 mostly-tropical species; their larvae conceal themselves in fruits, stems, or rolled/webbed-together leaves while eating.

They’re in the subfamily Pyraustinae, and according to bugguide.net, Pliny the Elder said that Pyrausta was, “a winged insect that was supposed to live in fire.”  “Magpie” apparently refers to the moth’s flashy black and white scales (there’s a Clouded magpie and a regular magpie moth, too: http://www.wildlifeinsight.com/british-moths/magpie-moth-caterpillar-abraxas-grossulariata/, but not here).

Small magpie moths, it turns out, are not native to North America – they are at home across Eurasia – so the majority of the biographical information the BugLady found was on English nature websites (but, FYI, their Norwegian name is Nesleengmott).  They probably arrived on this continent (at Nova Scotia) in the late 1800’s, and their checkerboard range now includes the Canadian Maritimes and New England states, Quebec, Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin (with a southern outlier specimen from Maryland), and the Pacific Northwest, to which, according to one source, they were introduced.

When they’re not sitting on storm doors (and it’s not winter), Small magpie moths are found in gardens, edges, hedgerows, and weedy waste spaces.  The BugLady could find no mention of the adults feeding, but the caterpillar https://bugguide.net/node/view/43983/bgimage eats the leaves of nettles (mostly), plus various mints, and bindweed.

There’s only one generation a year – caterpillars make a cocoon in a concealed spot in fall and spend the winter in it, pupating in spring without leaving the cocoon.  They emerge as adults not long after, with a May-to-September flight period.

But here’s the deal.  There’s no way this adult moth should have been on the landscape this week.  Yes, it’s been a mostly-mild winter here (once we got through November), and yes, the UK Butterfly Conservation site says that they “can be recorded as early as February and sometimes as late as November,” but it’s warmer overall in England, with the Gulf Stream, and all.  And one source says that larvae sometimes overwinter in attics (which the BugLady doesn’t have).  So where did this moth come from?  (And where did it go?  The BugLady looked down to fiddle with her camera and when she looked up again, the moth was gone – presumably into the house – no sightings yet.)

Rabbit hole alert:

For those who want to pursue the Pliny translation further, bugguide.net offers this link to the Tufts University Perseus Digital Library and Pliny’s writings about “An Animal Found in Fire” http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D11%3Achapter%3D42.  “That element, also, which is so destructive to matter, produces certain animals; for in the copper-smelting furnaces of Cyprus, in the very midst of the fire, there is to be seen flying about a four-footed animal with wings, the size of a large fly: this creature is called the ” pyrallis,” and by some the ” pyrausta.” So long as it remains in the fire it will live, but if it comes out and flies a little distance from it, it will instantly die.”  (Nota bene – there are little blue “forward” and “back” arrows if you can’t get enough Pliny).

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – And Now for Something a Little Different VIII – What Are Those Things?

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady is recovering (slowly) from some computer issues, her convalescence complicated by the fact that she doesn’t speak the language.  This article is modified from one she wrote for the Winter, 2014 issue of the BogHaunter, newsletter of the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog.

Crusty green or gray growths that look like they’ve been pounded or sprayed onto rocks and tree trunks.  Small, shrubby clumps attached to tree branches.  Tiny gray-green chalices or gnarled, red-topped fingers.  Brilliant orange cups and tongues appropriately named “sunburst.”  What are those things?

Lichens.

Naturalists take great glee in telling their audiences that “a lichen is a fungus and an alga that have taken a liken’ to each other.”  Lichens are two organisms in one package – “composite organisms” – a fungus and (usually) an alga.  If you had been reading about them a few decades ago, they would have been classified as non-flowering members of the Plant kingdom in their own taxonomic division.  Today, because a fungus contributes the characteristic shape of most lichens, the majority of lichens are classified in the Fungus kingdom.  Only about 20% of fungus species are able to “lichenized,” and a lichen fungus without its alga partner is formless.

Most lichen fungi are very particular about who they partner with.  Green and yellow-green algae, the typical algal partners, used to be classified as plants, too, but today are recognized as members of a large mish-mosh of generally tiny (but some as large as giant kelp), unicellular and multicellular, not-closely-related organisms that photosynthesize.  Some lichens contain cyanobacteria, and others may house both.

There are between 3,500 and 5,000 species of these often-overlooked organisms in North America and around 20,000 worldwide; and they are said to cover 6% of the earth’s surface.  Fungi have been living the “lichen lifestyle” for a long time – possibly as long as 400 million years (they don’t fossilize readily).  Visually, they are cataloged by growth form; the three most common groups are the foliose (leafy), crustose (crusty), and fruticose (shrubby) lichens.  Ecologically, some prefer to grow on a substrate of rocks, others like tree trunks or logs and may be picky about the tree species that they sit on (they just sit – they’re not parasites), and some live on the ground.

Calling them composite organisms actually may be underselling them a bit.  In the rich vocabulary of ecology, they are holobionts – essentially, each is a small ecosystem, a host with a collection of closely-associated viruses, bacteria, fungi, and primitive single-celled critters on board.

The biology of lichens is complex, and the BugLady suggests starting with the well-illustrated Lichens of the North Woods by Joe Walewski (no, the BugLady doesn’t get a kick-back from her frequent recommendations of the North Woods series).  One thing that lichenologists, who seem to enjoy a good argument, agree on is that even with today’s scientific tools, the more we study lichens, the more questions we raise.

Lichens can take root just about anywhere and can tolerate some pretty extreme climates (they’ve been grown in simulated Martian conditions).  They survive drought and heat by suspending metabolism, but, according to Walewski, some species continue to photosynthesize even after temperatures drop below freezing.  They are pioneer plants, often the first to grow on bare earth or rocks, and they are soil-makers, penetrating the rock surface minutely and allowing moisture to enter, moisture that freezes and ultimately cracks off tiny rock flakes.  They grow slowly and may live for a long time (a crustose lichen in the Arctic may be 8,600 years old), but eventually, their decay adds organic matter to the surface and enables the later stages of succession – mosses, grasses, wildflowers, and trees.  Cyanobacteria are nitrogen-fixers that contribute to the fertility of the soil.

How do they work? The fungus provides structure and attachment, and it absorbs moisture and nutrients, primarily from the atmosphere.  It absorbs water and impurities indiscriminately, and some species, sensitive to air pollution, are considered indicators of air quality. The alga also gets water and minerals from the air, and the food it makes through photosynthesis is used by both partners.

This win-win partnership is often labeled as mutualism, a relationship from which both partners benefit.  Because the algal partner can exist in nature without the fungus, but not vice-versa, some scientists call it commensalism, a relationship in which one partner benefits and the other is unaffected.

Lichens can reproduce sexually or asexually/vegetatively. Vegetative lichen reproductive structures are little starter kits that contain cells of both (all) partners. They may be special structures (diaspores – algal material in fungal wrappers) produced and released by the lichen, or they may simply be a piece of the existing lichen that breaks off and grows where it falls.  Less commonly, lichens reproduce sexually, just like a mushroom, making spores that carry only the genetic material of the fungus.  It’s a chancy proposition, since the fungal spores must come in contact with the appropriate algae in order to grow.  The alga within the fungus can only reproduce asexually.

Lichens do not go unnoticed by wildlife.  Northern Parula Warblers and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds incorporate them into their nests, and lichens (which are protein-poor but carbohydrate-rich) are eaten by a variety of insects, snails, slugs, deer and reindeer.  Wikipedia tell us that “Lichens are also used by the Northern flying squirrel for nesting, food, and a water source during winter.”  Humans use them as an emergency food (George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge ate a soup made with rock tripe lichens), and the secondary compounds made by these “simple plants,” mainly for their own protection, turn out to be useful to us as dyes and as medicines – including antibiotic and antiseptic agents (because it looks like a lung, Lobaria pulmonaria was used to treat respiratory ailments).

 

Welewski quotes a lichenologist who describes lichens as “a fungus that has discovered agriculture.”

The winter landscape is a good place to discover lichens because they’re not hidden by leaves.  Go outside.  Take a hand lens.  Look at lichens.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Clouded Plant Bug

Greetings, BugFans,

 

For several years the BugLady has been photographing this nifty little bug at the edges of Riveredge prairies.  She figured it was one of the (many) mirid plant bugs, but it’s been uninviting outside lately – damp and cloudy, with a chance of slush – so she applied herself and decided on the Clouded plant bug (Neurocolpus nubilus) (probably).

Miridae is a large family in the “true bug” order Hemiptera.  If you have an older insect field guide, Miridae is part of the former order Homoptera, which has been folded into Hemiptera.  With more than 10,000 species overall (about one-fifth of them in North America), mirids are the largest family of Hemipterans.  Many mirids are plant eaters, and some are unwelcome in gardens and agricultural fields, but Tarnished plant bugs are singlehandedly responsible for much of the family’s bad reputation https://bugguide.net/node/view/1494218.

 

Like all “true bugs,” a mirid’s mouthparts are adapted for piercing its food source (be it animal or vegetable) and sucking the fluids from it (the mouthparts are tucked along its underside when not in use, which can be seen in one of the BugLady’s pictures).  Its wings are membranous at the tips and more leathery where they attach to the body (Hemiptera means “half wings”).  A small downward “fold” of the wings toward the bug’s posterior is a mirid field mark.

Clouded plant bugs resemble many other mirids in that they are small, angular, and cryptically colored in various shades of brown (there are some spectacular mirids, though: https://bugguide.net/node/view/1672242/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/284743/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1016022/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/506088/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/399110/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1294241/bgpage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1060593/bgimage).

 

The Clouded plant bug is found in the eastern and mid-western parts of North America, and Americaninsects.net describes it as “widespread, but not always common.”  Of the 14 species in the genus, some are nearly identical and could be a “species complex,” a slippery assemblage of very similar-looking, closely-related species that may or may not be able to interbreed successfully and that confuse biologists (but not each other – they know who they are).  Neurocolpus are less than ½” long, adults and nymphs have a swollen, bristly segment at the base of each antenna (https://bugguide.net/node/view/96507/bgpage), and they have heavy “thighs” on their third set of legs, which the BugLady didn’t even notice because she was so enthralled with the front end of the bug.  Nymphs are greenish, and their antennae are red-and-white striped https://bugguide.net/node/view/192135.

Both the adults and the flightless nymphs are generalist feeders, and the list of plants that they’ve been seen on has more than 40 species on it, both woody and herbaceous (mints are near the top, along with composites and a variety of bedding and perennial plants).  Cotton is on that list, too, and Clouded plant bugs are considered minor cotton pests that may be increasing as insecticide regimes have changed.  Their feeding causes round spots of dead tissue on leaves, and in cotton, the shedding of small buds, but their populations peak too late in the growing season to have a big impact on cotton yields.

 

Along with camouflage, lots of mirid species dodge predators by secreting nasty chemicals through pores in their sides, but this doesn’t always deter hungry birds, spiders, and insects.  Adults are quick to take flight, and nymphs dash around to the opposite side of a twig or under a leaf when danger threatens.

 

Females lay eggs deep in plant tissue.  There are several generations each year in middle and southern states, and the final generation overwinters in the egg stage.  Look for them here throughout the summer.

 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/