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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In Search of Snow Bugs

It’s been a slow winter for bug photography. Partly because my main outdoor activity has been shoveling the driveway every couple of days, and then shoveling around all the baby fruit trees whose vole guards were overtopped by snow. And partly because when I’ve gotten motivated to go for a walk in the woods, I just haven’t seen much for whatever reason. Every once in a while, right after a new snowfall I’ve seen a few soldier beetle (Cantharidae) larvae crawling around, like this one from back on December 11:


And I’ve continued to see the occasional snow flea, running crab spider, or winter crane fly, as shown in this post. But no sign of snow scorpionflies, wingless crane flies, or anything else unusual. Today began with another blizzard, but in the afternoon it was sunny for a while, and I was inspired to strap on snowshoes (the snow is still thigh-deep around here) and walk down to my local beaver pond. When I came to a spot where there were small openings in the snow to a little stream running below it, suddenly the snow was full of life. I didn’t bring my camera with me, so I’ll illustrate with some photos from previous winters.

Within a few feet of one opening, there were a few small winter stoneflies (Capniidae), which had evidently just emerged from the stream…


…a long-jawed orbweaver (Tetragnathidae: Tetragnatha)*…

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…a Haploa caterpillar (Erebidae)**, which is often one of the first caterpillars I see in the spring, but this one was jumping the gun a little bit…


…and several midges (Chironomidae: Orthocladiinae).

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I visited several of these wet openings on the seepy hillside above the beaver pond, and each seemed to have more midges around it than the previous one. There were also robin tracks skipping from one opening to the next. The robins may have been partly visiting these openings to drink, but I’m sure they were dining on the midges as well. They must be excited to have something more than dried bittersweet, Japanese barberry, and sumac fruits to eat.

* A few winters ago I found this Tetragnatha viridis walking around on the snow. It was bizarre to see something so tropical-looking in the midst of a bleak winter landscape.IMG_6418 IMG_6428

** Haploa caterpillars grow up to look like this, as I learned when I put three of them in a jar with some spring wildflowers nine years ago:


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Spring is Coming!

…he said hopefully, from beneath several feet of snow, as the mercury struggled to rise above 0°F.

Which is to say, the sedge leafminer I collected two months ago decided it was springy enough in my house to complete its metamorphosis and emerge as an adult moth yesterday.


That was how the mine looked on January 1; here is the completed mine after the larva abandoned it on January 16:


By the time I discovered it, the larva had spun loose webbing over the leaf surface and was already looking like a chubby prepupa:

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Four days later, it shed its skin to reveal a pupa that looked just like a tiny (4 mm) version of the chrysalis of a pierid butterfly (such as a cabbage white)–complete with the little silk “girdle” slung over it.  (Looking at the above photo, you can see that the “girdle” was originally pointed toward the head, but flopped the other way as the skin was shed.)


Exactly a month later–four days ago–I noticed that the pupa was suddenly looking a lot darker.


And yesterday it had become an empty shell…


…and an adult Elachista had emerged.


So my suspicion was correct, and I feel reasonably good about calling this one Elachista cucullata.  In her 1948 revision of the Elachistidae of North America, Annette Braun (who first described this species in 1921) stated that among the Elachista species with known larvae, the larva and pupa of this one are distinct in being red with paler, pinkish mid-dorsal and lateral lines.  (I would have called it pale with two red stripes, but same idea.) Her description of the mine also matches well; in autumn, the larva makes a linear mine from the tip of a sedge leaf downward, then broadens it in the spring.  Whereas this mine was confined to one side of the midrib, she says the mine broadens to occupy the whole leaf–but she also says that the host plants are “several narrow-leaved species of Carex, especially C. jamesii.”  This was a relatively broad-leaved species; I’ll try to remember this summer to go and see exactly which species it was.

Now, of course, Lauri Kaila went and described 85 more North American Elachista species (some of them named after Tolkien characters) after Braun’s revision, and only a tiny number of the 138 named species have known host plants, let alone described immature stages.  But we’ll go with “probably Elachista cucullata” until new information comes to light.

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Cicada Killers and the Bigger Picture

Not far from where I live is a place that seems as if a chunk of Nantucket or the New Jersey Pine Barrens was dropped in the middle of western Massachusetts. In contrast to the surrounding landscape’s rocky soil, supporting forest with a mixture of oak, hickory, maple, ash, hemlock, and other trees, the Montague Sand Plains are an expanse of dry, sandy habitat with an abundance of pitch pine and scrub oak.  The habitat is extensive enough that it supports populations of a variety of plants and animals that are considered rare and of conservation concern in Massachusetts.

The reason for this big sand pile is that about 15,000 years ago, when the last glacier was receding, glacial sediments plugged up the Connecticut River in what is now central Connecticut, forming a dam that turned the river into a massive lake extending to northern Vermont.  The Sand Plains are one of the deltas that formed where melt water streams carrying glacial sediment emptied into the lake.

To someone ignorant of the natural world (e.g., most of the people in charge of making major decisions that affect it), the Montague Plains might appear to be a scrappy wasteland not worth protecting.  In the early 1970s, the State thought it would be a perfect spot for a landfill to dump all of Boston’s trash.  Shortly after the people of Montague managed to fight off this assault, Northeast Utilities decided to put a nuclear power plant there.  The only legal means for preventing this was to speak up at a hearing held by the Atomic Energy Commission, whose decision would preempt all state and local laws.  A local organic farmer named Sam Lovejoy recognized that these hearings were a farce, and 41 years ago today [well, yesterday, since I finished this after midnight], he knocked over a 500-foot weather tower that Northeast Utilities had erected to test wind direction.  His intent was to spark a public debate on the effects of nuclear reactors.  The details are given in the documentary Lovejoy’s Nuclear War, which I just had the opportunity to see today. But the upshot is, the nuclear plant was never built, and the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area remains a special place.

So last summer, when Lang Elliott came for a visit and was looking for some interesting bugs to film, I brought him to the Montague Plains.  In addition to things like tiger beetles, wolf spiders, and velvet ants, sandy places like this are home to all kinds of digger wasps, each of which stocks its burrow with a particular paralyzed prey item to feed its offspring. Some species specialize in spiders, others in flies, or grasshoppers, or metallic wood-boring beetles, and so on.  I knew a spot where we could be sure to see some cicada killers (Crabronidae: Sphecius speciosus), which are wasps that are big enough that they can actually fly while carrying a cicada, and their burrows look like they could be the work of a small mammal rather than an insect.  The cicada killers did not disappoint, and at one point we got a good look at a mating pair:


Lang was excited enough about the cicada killers that he came back two more times to get additional footage.  When Julia and I joined him for his third visit, he showed us the spot he had found where the males all hang out together while the females are busy hunting and bringing back cicadas to their burrows.  His mission this time was to get footage of a wasp carrying a cicada into her burrow.  This proved to be a major challenge, because when you saw one coming, there was no way of knowing which burrow it was heading for, and when it landed it would zip into the hole so quickly that if I was lucky I might manage one shot like this…


…but there was no time to set up a tripod with a video camera before the wasp disappeared. Eventually we decided to place a twig over a burrow, just to slow the wasp down enough to get the camera set up.  When the wasp returned, she dropped her cicada and flew away.  Lang got everything ready and removed the twig, but when the wasp came back again, she seemed confused about where her burrow was, and she started dragging the cicada every which way across the sand. While Lang waited patiently for her to get her bearings, I followed her around and managed some better shots, including this one:


She then proceeded to run up Julia’s leg, continuing until she bumped into the lens of Julia’s camera:


If I’d been a little quicker, this could have been a great in-flight shot:


Around this time, another insect showed up–I seem to remember it being a fly–and chased the cicada killer back and forth over our heads several times.  Presumably it wanted to lay an egg on the cicada so its offspring could devour it after being deposited in the cicada killer’s burrow.  Eventually, the wasp managed to lose her pursuer, came back to the ground, and Lang got beautiful footage of her finally dragging the cicada into her burrow (which I’m hoping he will post on his website one of these days…).


The Montague Plains are now facing another assault, this time from Kinder Morgan, the energy company formerly known as Enron, which proposes to put a major natural gas pipeline through at least 148 “permanently protected” parcels across Massachusetts.  This proposal is not based on need; as Kinder Morgan’s public affairs vice president candidly stated at an informational meeting last fall, the company bases its decision to go ahead with a project based on two criteria: 1) whether they will make money on it, and 2) whether the government will let them do it.  The second criterion is no problem, since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, like its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission, virtually never denies a project.  And their decision, too, trumps any state or local laws, such as those governing “permanently protected” conservation land.  The first criterion will also be no problem, because the plan is to export a good chunk of the gas overseas AND have electric ratepayers in New England cover the cost.

The cicada killers likely won’t be affected by this pipeline, and maybe it’s just fine for public and private land to be taken through eminent domain for the sake of enriching a corporation with a terrible environmental record.  And maybe I’m just being a NIMBY for not wanting Kinder Morgan to put one of the largest natural gas compressor stations in existence–with three turbines each droning louder than the loudest rock concert in history, belching formaldehyde and other chemicals into the air–right next to a conservation area that is within a mile of my house.  It could be that choosing to live within the evacuation zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant isn’t enough of a sacrifice for me to make.  But the fracking to obtain this gas is destroying livelihoods and communities in other parts of the country, not to mention causing earthquakes and contaminating aquifers with a long list of toxic chemicals.  And not to mention that natural gas (methane) is an even more potent greenhouse gas in the short term than carbon dioxide, and is just another fossil fuel rather than the “bridge to a clean energy future” as is often claimed.

It’s easy for people to be convinced that all this devastation and all these pipelines are necessary when all they pay attention to is the price of electricity (especially when the supply and price are being deliberately manipulated in order to convince them).  But I can’t help but think that the $3-4 billion cost of this pipeline would be better invested in efficiency, conservation, and renewable technologies.

I guess all I’m saying is, it would be nice if everyone could think a little more about where our energy is coming from so I can stop worrying about these assaults on my local landscape and get back to thinking about bugs.

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