Bunchberry Squiggler Unmasked!

You may recall that back in September, I wrote about some mysterious squiggles radiating from the bases of bunchberry leaves:



I rambled on about how I thought they must be caused by a species of Antispila (Heliozelidae), but not A. freemani, the species that is known to mine bunchberry leaves. I ended with these two photos taken the day after I collected the leaves, backlit to reveal the tiny larvae inside:



Well, three days later the larvae had definitely switched from making linear mines to blotches…


…and after another three days, the initial linear portions were becoming dwarfed by the blotches:


If I’d had any lingering doubts about these being Antispila larvae, they were dispelled within two weeks, as all the larvae finished mining and cut out their characteristic oval pupal cases.


Each case had a distinct longitudinal ridge and several “spokes” projecting from the ends:


Into the fridge they all went in December, and out they all came in March. Today, the first moth emerged, leaving its pupal skin protruding from the leaf cut-out:


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It’s pretty similar to the moths I’ve reared from the “normal” bunchberry mines, but substantially smaller (~2.3 mm from head to wingtip, versus 3.2-3.5 mm for the others). I’ll have to get somebody to look at the genitalia in order to reach a definite conclusion, but I think it’s clear that there are two Antispila species mining bunchberry.

In reviewing Lafontaine’s (1973) revision of the dogwood-feeding Antispila species*, I see that A. cornifoliella is much smaller than A. freemani, and I suspect that rather than having found a new species, I have found that the hosts of these two moths do not break down as nicely as Lafontaine claimed. He stated that the food plants of A. freemani are “northern species of the genus Cornus typical of damp situations”–bunchberry (C. canadensis), silky dogwood (C. amomum/obliqua), and red osier dogwood (C. stolonifera)–whereas A. cornifoliella feeds on “southern, upland species of Cornus,” e.g. flowering dogwood (C. florida) and alternate dogwood (C. alternifolia). Neither he nor any other author that I know of has described the mines of either species beyond saying that they are blotches.

I have now seen these initially linear mines on bunchberry, silky dogwood, and alternate dogwood, and I have seen the simple blotch mines on bunchberry, alternate dogwood, and roughleaf dogwood (C. drummondii).  To confuse things just a little bit more, on stiff dogwood (C. foemina) in Florida I found some mines that were sort of intermediate, beginning with a broader linear mine:


Well, it’ll all get sorted out eventually, I guess.  Or not.

* Lafontaine, J. D. 1973. Eastern North American species of Antispila (Lepidoptera: Heliozelidae) feeding on Nyssa and Cornus. The Canadian Entomologist 105(7): 991-996.

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Zucchini Monster

Back on October 21, I spotted a weird little thing inching along the kitchen counter, where Julia had recently set a pile of zucchini from the garden. IMG_9532

Its head was constantly bobbing and swinging around, but eventually I managed to get a shot of its face, such as it was.


I put it in a jar of soil with some leaf litter, and it overwintered in the fridge with all the jars and vials of leafminers.  Two days ago, it emerged as an adult.

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I had figured out shortly after photographing the larva that it was some kind of soldier fly (Stratiomyidae), and when I showed photos of the larva to Norm Woodley he was fairly certain that it belonged to the genus Allognosta, subfamily Beridinae. So now that I had an adult fly, I ran the photos through the key in Maurice T. James’ 1939 review of the Nearctic Beridinae, and I easily arrived at Allognosta fuscitarsisWith Norm’s blessing on this ID, I sent the fly back out into the yard yesterday.

His face as an adult is decidedly more pleasing to the eye.


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Introducing Scolioneura vaccinii

When Julia and I embarked on our big western road trip in search of leafminers in the fall of 2012, we kept encountering what appeared to be sawfly mines on Vaccinium species in western Washington. The plants are known as huckleberries out there, but where I come from huckleberries are Gaylussacia and most shrubs in the genus Vaccinium are known as blueberries. To be fair, the berries of V. parvifolium are red, but the berries of V. membranaceum are more or less blue (and also happen to be delicious). Anyway, the sawfly mines were on both of these “huckleberry” species.


I knew there wasn’t supposed to be a sawfly leafminer on Vaccinium, so we collected a good number of the leaves that still had larvae inside. One by one, the larvae matured and popped out of the leaves. I offered them little jars of soil to burrow into, and waited for adults to emerge. In the meantime, elongate little cocoons appeared in some of the mines.


Before long, braconid wasps started emerging from some of these cocoons.


In December, I put everything in the refrigerator to overwinter.  A few months later, I took everything out.  Some more of the same braconid wasps emerged, but no sawflies.  So it seemed I might never know what species the sawfly was, although I was inclined to suspect Prolatus artus, a species described from Oregon whose host is unknown.  There are only 30 or so species of leaf-mining sawflies in North America, so there were only so many options.

That summer, Noah mentioned that he and his wife Sydne were heading to Seattle for a few days, so I encouraged them to try and find some more of these mines, even though it might be a few months too early.  When they returned, Noah presented me with two mined leaves of red huckleberry.  Given my previous success rate, I was not optimistic.  I was even less so after another one of those darned braconids emerged from one of the leaves.  But from the remaining leaf, a sawfly larva did emerge…


…and I offered it the finest mixture of moistened sand and peat into which to burrow.  (On the road, I had used locally available soil, which was more difficult to keep at a good moisture level.)  Come November, no adult had emerged, so into the fridge it went.  I took everything out in February, in the hope that all the bugs would be done emerging before Julia and I headed to Ohio to get married in April.  The sawfly had other plans, so the jar of soil traveled to Ohio with us.  Just before we had to leave for some wedding-related event, I glanced at the jar on the windowsill and saw that the sawfly had emerged.  I quickly took a few photos of it before preserving it and leaving for the event.



Once back home, I sent the sawfly to Dave Smith, the American sawfly expert, who determined that it belonged to the genus Scolioneura.  There were only four known species in this genus, one of them from northern Iran and three from Europe.  One of the latter is introduced in Canada and feeds on birch; the known hosts of the others are birch, alder, and willow.  After consulting descriptions and borrowing European specimens, Dave determined that the huckleberry miner was something new.  We put together a paper describing it, and it was published today*–so I can now officially report that the sawfly in question is Scolioneura vaccinii Smith & Eiseman.  Mystery solved!


The sawfly even made the cover of the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.  This seems to be the only available image of the cover, but it lets you see the sawfly closer to life size… although this is still about three times larger than life.

Incidentally, José Fernández-Triana at the Canadian National Collection determined that the braconids belong to the genus Shawiana.  They almost certainly represent a new species too, since there are just two known North American species in this genus, both in the eastern US (and one of those is introduced from Europe).  There’s no telling when they might get a name, though, since no one in North America works on that subfamily of braconids (in fact, no one can even agree on what that subfamily is–depending on who you ask, it’s either Exothecinae or Hormiinae; Mike Sharkey, who specializes in Agathidinae, declared that both subfamilies are very wrong).

* Smith, David R., Charles S. Eiseman, Noah D. Charney, and Sydne Record. 2015. A new Nearctic Scolioneura (Hymenoptera, Tenthredinidae) mining leaves of Vaccinium (Ericaceae). Journal of Hymenoptera Research 43:1-8.  (available here)

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Four Years of Bug Tracking

It was four years ago today that I started this blog, which has now amassed 456 subscribers (only two of whom are my parents!). I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what some of my most popular posts have been to date (in terms of the number of views for each post according to the WordPress stats page).

Although I wrote it when the blog was still young, my brief eulogy for Lynn Margulis still has received more than twice as many views as the runner-up. This is certainly more a testament to Lynn’s influence than to the quality of my writing.

It’s always interesting to see what search engine terms are leading people to my blog, and since I very often see something pop up to the effect of “what is this lump on my dog?”, it wasn’t surprising to learn that this is my second most viewed post. I always wonder if people are sorry they asked, when they discover that the answer might involve this black-fanged creature:

In my third most viewed post, I rambled on about this strange structure that Troy Alexander had photographed in the Peruvian Amazon:


I was right about it being a spider egg sac, incidentally. You can see what the spiderlings look like here.

Number four is my post about woolly aphids. I’m not really sure why so many people end up seeing that one; I guess at certain times of year there are a lot of these little fuzzballs floating around, and people wonder what they are.

I did attempt to explain aphid life cycles and the associated terminology, which I still can’t keep straight, so I’m glad to have reminded myself just now that I can re-read that post next time I need a refresher.

Number five takes us back to the pet theme of number two. In this case, people are asking “what is the part that a cat leaves behind when it eats a mouse?”

Number six has been getting a lot of visits lately, as people in the southern US have been asking, “what are these grubs raining down from my pine tree?”


It will be several more weeks before the wave of raining grubs makes it up here to New England.

And so on. This is apparently my 239th post, and for those of you who haven’t been with me from the beginning, you can easily access my older posts by scrolling down to the monthly archives in the right sidebar, or by clicking on the various tags and links and such. Thanks everybody for reading!

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Taxonomist Appreciation Day

I just learned (from Terry Wheeler’s blog) that March 19 is Taxonomist Appreciation Day. I’m certainly feeling appreciative of taxonomists today, so I thought I’d add my two cents. If you follow this blog, you know that I spend a lot of time raising insects, so that I can put names to mysterious tracks and signs I find that are left by difficult-to-identify immature stages. That only works if someone has previously gone to the trouble of naming the insect that I end up raising–otherwise I’m no better off than I when I started: some kind of bug, for which I have no name, is responsible for whatever I was wondering about. My brain doesn’t have a good filing system for things that I can’t put a name on, and my book on invertebrate tracks and signs would be a lot less informative if the answer to every riddle was just “some kind of bug did this.”

Simply giving things common names doesn’t help much with the kinds of insects I study. Since I just finished my key to leaf mines on the genus Populus, which includes aspens, I just looked up “aspen” in the Entomological Society of America’s database of insect common names for an example to illustrate this point. I see that “aspen blotchminer” refers to Phyllonorycter tremuloidiella (Braun, 1908). What, then, do I call the other 30 or so North American moths, flies, beetles, and sawflies whose larvae make blotch mines on aspen? This is an especially good example because, thanks to the taxonomic work of Don Davis and Gerfried Deschka*, we know that P. tremuloidiella is actually the same species as the European Phyllonorycter apparella (Herrich-Schäffer, 1855), and thus P. tremuloidiella is no longer a valid name, since Gottlieb August Wilhelm Herrich-Schäffer had already published a name for this moth 53 years before Annette Braun did.

People who are primarily interested in big things like birds, mammals, butterflies, and dragonflies may take for granted that they can look any one of these animals up in a field guide and learn its name. This name is the key that unlocks all of the natural history information about that animal that has been recorded in other books, scientific papers, and so on. Working on tiny, obscure insects such as leafminers and gallmakers and their parasitoids, I regularly encounter insects that have no names. In some cases this is because no one has ever encountered these insects before, and in others it is simply because no one has gotten around to naming them yet.

The first few times I found unnamed species, it was exciting, but after a while it starts to get a little frustrating to be accumulating all this natural history information without being able to publish anything about it because there are no names to attach to it. To suggest that I just name them myself fails to appreciate the expertise that a good taxonomist has. I am dabbling in the study of many different taxonomic groups, and for several of these the experts to whom I turn with questions have been studying these insects for over 50 years, examining thousands of specimens and scrutinizing genitalia and other minute details.

So I am extremely grateful when a taxonomist decides to describe and name one of the “new” species I’ve found. Here are several species that come to mind at the moment that I know taxonomists are actively working on (you may recognize a few from previous posts). I will properly introduce you to these insects once their names are published, but for now you can call them whatever you like!

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* Davis, Donald R. and Gerfried Deschka. 2001. Biology and systematics of the North American Phyllonorycter leafminers on Salicaceae, with a synoptic catalog of the Palearctic species (Lepidoptera: Gracillariidae). Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology Number 614.

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Quinquennial Snow Flea Session

After my “In Search of Snow Bugs” post a few days ago, Lang Elliott asked if I had any great pictures of snow fleas. I checked my files, and I found that my last attempt to photograph snow fleas on snow was the week I got my Canon macro lens, five years ago (I do have several shots of them on other substrates, like the group I found under bark this past December).  Those pictures are decidedly not great. Snow fleas on snow are about the most difficult things to photograph, because in addition to their being only about 1.5 mm long and jumping out of sight as soon as I find them in the viewfinder, photographing a dark object on a bright white background inevitably results in an underexposed subject or an overexposed background. Plus, with the blindingly bright snow on a sunny day, I can never be sure how the pictures are coming out when I review them on the LCD. But, since it was so nice out the other day, I decided to kneel in the snow for an hour and a half in a group of snow fleas and see what I could come up with. The results are still not exactly great, but possibly the best that can be done with this combination of camera, lens, subject, and photographer. Possibly if I had a better photo editing program I could create the illusion that I had taken great photos. Anyway, here are some of my favorites, out of the 300 or so I had to choose from. IMG_0419 IMG_0421 IMG_0438  IMG_0448 IMG_0464 IMG_0556  IMG_0356


In the photo above, you may recognize yesterday’s mystery object:


It turns out that when a snow flea is getting ready to jump, it everts these three sticky vesicles from its anus, which help keep it from bouncing around when it lands. Another interesting feature in the above shot is the pair of dorsal spines. Their relatively large size indicates that this not Hypogastrura nivicola, the common species that snow fleas are usually assumed to be. It is probably H. harveyi, but I still need to run these photos by Frans Janssens to verify that. In addition to the size of the anal spines, snow flea identification requires examining the number and arrangement of setae (hairs) in various places, e.g. above the eyes and on the fourth abdominal segment. These photos, while certainly not National Geographic quality, should suffice for that purpose.


This is the one photo I got that shows the furca, which is the “tail” with which snow fleas and other springtails do their “springing.” Five years ago I had managed a shot of a true H. nivicola (note the lack of prominent anal spines) that shows the furca a little better.


When I was just about done with my hour and a half of kneeling in the snow, I suddenly realized that the “baby snow fleas” I had been ignoring were actually a totally unrelated kind of springtail:

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As you can see, they came in a variety of colors, and I’m not certain they’re all the same kind, but it seems possible that they are. A quick look through BugGuide suggests the genus Proisotoma (Isotomidae), which belongs to a different order from snow fleas. I’ll update this post when I learn more. These were all around 1 mm long, or two-thirds the size of a snow flea.

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So, anybody recognize what we’re looking at here?


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