Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lacon sparsa

Lacon sparsa is a broad black click beetle about half an inch long that lives under the bark of dead trees. I found this individual over the Thanksgiving weekend under the bark of a dead gray pine on Los Gatos Creek in western Fresno County (west of Coalinga). There wasn't much out except for lark sparrows lower down the canyon, yellow-billed magpies and darkling beetles along the road.

Lacon sparsa is easily recognizable with its predominantly black scales overlying its black body. There are a few scattered white scales intermixed but not nearly enough to confuse it with L. rorulenta which also has coppery scales (see my previous post for November 4). It's an attractive clicker.

If November isn't the most productive month to be collecting in this part of California. Los Gatos Creek isn't very productive for another reason: it's fenced almost it's entire length. There are a few places to get out and look around - even a few new campgrounds being put in - but overall, Warthon Canyon to the south is better for finding insects.

That said, the scenery is still nice - open pine oak woodland. You just have to enjoy it on the other side of a fence.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Agabus grisseipennis

Three weeks ago, in the middle of November, we had a warm spell in Fresno and the thermometer rose to the high 70's. I took a walk outside to enjoy the day and was surprised by a singular raindrop as I passed a large puddle by the road. The sky was clear and yet I was certain that something had fallen from above into the water. As I stopped to see what was going on, another drop landed on the puddle but this time I could tell that it wasn't water. It was a beetle.

To be more precise, it was a diving beetle (Agabus grisseipennis) a fairly common diving beetle of the Western US. It was obviously taking advantage of the warm day but I was curious about the temporary pool. Why would the predatory beetles be landing in a temporary puddle in November. Obviously this was no place to complete a life cycle.

Then I noticed the dragonflies - lots of them. They were variegated meadowhawks and at one point I noticed ten mating pairs in copula bobbing up and down over the water - the females dropping eggs when the pair got close enough to the puddle. Some dragonflies species are known to drop eggs in temporary ponds or by the side of streams in moist soil. The eggs can survive out of water for quite some time until water returns and covers them up and they hatch.

Then I noticed a backswimmer (a true bug of the genus Notonecta) drop into the water, and I started to figure out what was going on. Both the diving beetle and the backswimmer are predators and I suspected that they were attracted by the dragonflies - and the chance of eating their eggs.

The picture of the backswimmer is a bit out of focus but it is unusual enough that I'm posting it anyway. Backswimmers live almost all of their lives underwater with their bottom (ventral) side up. When they swim, they kick their legs somewhat like a human swimmer doing the backstroke - hence their name. I have been around ponds and puddles for about 30 years watching insects and this is the first time I ever remember seeing a backswimmer resting on top of the water with its backside up. I even found one individual resting beside the puddle on moist soil in the same position. It seemed that these insects were behaving in a peculiar way because of an opportunity - a warm autumn dragonfly fest.

These sorts of entomological spectacles have to be appreciated when you come across them. You may never see the likes of them again. Sadly, they often happen and nobody notices. I saw a couple of people pass the puddle and not notice a single insect. I left for a couple of hours and when I returned the buzz of activity was over. All I saw was a lone backswimmer resting on the muddy bottom - backside down.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hoary Skimmer

This picture of a hoary skimmer (Libellula nodisticta) was lucky in a couple of ways. Most lucky of all was that we even found it. Hoary skimmers are not commonly encountered dragonflies. Kathy Biggs considers it "sporadic" and "sparse" (see her Dragonflies of California).

We came across this individual near Lone Pine, California (in Inyo County) last August as we drove by a small slow-moving stream. Michael and I decided it was worth stopping to see. We were glad we did. The hoary skimmer was triangulating back and forth among the tall cattails and I managed to get close enough for the picture. One never has the appropriate wading boots available at times like this but I managed to get the picture with a bit of lucky maneuvering.

The area around Lone Pine is famous in old westerns. Several movies were filmed in the area. If you stop to eat in one of the local restaurants, you'll see old pictures of celebrities all along the walls. Here's a shot of some of the local landscape.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dead-Leaf Typophyllum

One of the pleasures of visiting tropical America is the discovery of its impressive number of grasshoppers, walking sticks and katydids. Some of these insects reach enormous proportions. A number of years ago while hiking with my friend Mark into the back-country of Honduras (around Mount Botaderos) I nearly smashed a walking stick that was nearly the size of a baton. It was so perfectly camouflaged on a tree that I failed to notice it just inches from my hand. Unfortunately I didn't have a camera with me.

It's not at all uncommon to come upon grasshoppers that are twice the size of the big ones we see in the states. But that said, it is the katydids that really outdo themselves. Earlier this year (in May) I took a trip to Costa Rica with my friend Steve and son Michael. We spent one night at the Wilson Botanical Gardens (southwest of San Vito, near the Panamanian border) and had the privileged of exploring the many trails that wind through various elevations of native forest. Among the many fascinating creatures we saw, this dead-leaf katydid was one of the most impressive. It belongs to the genus Typophyllum and may be the recognized species T. mortuifolium (literally the dead-leaf Typophyllum) but since our knowledge of this group in Central America is so limited, I have no way to confirm this.

The katydid is about two inches long (excluding the antennae) and the mimicry is truly remarkable - even down to the necrotic spots on the wings that look like areas of fungal growth. I found it at night not long after the sun went down near the visitor lodge. The picture of the tropical sunset is from the back porch right after a chestnut-mandibled toucan went squawking through the upper canopy of the Cecropia trees. If you ever make it to Costa Rica, this is a great place to see - but you'll want to spend at least a couple of days there. The facilities are nice and the staff are very accommodating.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lacon rorulenta

Lacon rorulenta is a beautiful coppery-colored click beetle of the northwestern parts of the United States. The beetle itself is only about half an inch long and it's real color is black. It is the thick flat hairs covering its body that give it it's attractive color. Some of these hairs are coppery and others are black. They lay flat over the beetle's body somewhat like shingles so that the entire insect looks brightly colored. I found this individual a couple of weeks ago in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness of Fresno County. This is a bit south of its known distribution but the fact that I was high in the Sierra doesn't make this too unusual. (Many northern species are known to work their way south at higher elevations.)

I was hiking early in the morning from Lake Nelson. The ground above 8,700 feet was frozen and a few small piles of snow were still on the ground from the recent storms that had passed over the Central Valley several days before. There is a rich forest of red firs along the trail at this elevation and it was under the bark of one of these fallen trees that I found the click beetle. Red fir has a thick furrowed bark that doesn't come off until the tree has been dead for well over a year. This picture is of the small red fir grove where I found the beetle.

Overall, it was 10 miles to and from Lake Nelson from the Cliff Lake trailhead near Courtright Reservoir. But the hike was well worth it. As the sun was coming up over the hills to the east, the lake reflected several shades of soft morning blue light with a thin layer of frost on the shore and mist coming from the water. It was a grand sight.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lytta funerea

Lytta funerea is a blister beetle known from the San Joaquin Valley in California. These pictures are from a small population I found on September 4th (of this year) just below Millerton Dam (north of Fresno). They were all on a few tarweed plants near Lost Lake.

Lytta funerea is a pretty black species with a small orange spot on the top of the head (vaguely discernible in one of the pictures). Caution is required, however, in identifying black blister beetles in the Western US. There are several species that are black and have a small orange spot on the head. Lytta funerea is different from these in having nearly straight mandibles. It is also the only one of these species lacking clear pads on the tarsi (the segments making up the "feet").

The habitat around Lost Lake in September is dry. Dragonflies and wasps are out and about but not many other things are. Lytta beetles are known to parasitize bees of the family Anthophoridae. A young beetle larva, once it has emerged from the egg, is very active and finds its way to a flower. When a bee arrives to feed, the small larva (called a triungulin) quickly crawls aboard and is carried back to the bee's nest where it begins to feed on the developing brood. As the larval beetle grows it turns into a sluggish grub and will eventually isolate itself to pupate. These beetles were all glossy black and seemed to have recently emerged.

Here's a habitat shot with tarweed and oaks near where the beetles were seen.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Amphicyrta dentipes

I spent a few hours last weekend up in the Sierra foothills above Fresno a day or two after our first rains of the season. It was cool, refreshing and quiet. It's always nice to get above the valley air as well. At one stop just a couple of miles southeast of Bretz Mill Campground (a bit south of Shaver Lake in Fresno County) I came across this pill beetle under a partially cut log near Big Creek. It is Amphicyrta dentipes and quite large - at least for a pill beetle (about a centimeter long). Most pill

beetles feed on mosses but Amphicyrta doesn't fit this pattern so much. I found A. dentipes partially buried in the riparian litter of dead twigs and dark soil. The other Amphicyrta species in California (the brassier looking A. chrysomelina) is known to feed on lilies and other vegetables and can sometimes be a pest (although I doubt very much that you'll ever find an insecticide label with a pill beetle listed on it).

The habitat along Big Creek is a bit unusual for a mid-elevation Sierra stream (at about 3,000 feet). It flows fairly slowly and has sandy banks in several places. I also found several ground beetles in the same area (including the impressive Pterostichus lama).

A bit further up the road I came upon a wild apple tree at dusk with ripe fruit. It was a very pleasant surprise and not something I see very often – especially in California where we have no native apples larger than a crab apple. I sampled a few of the less-wormy fruit. They're not as bitter as crab apples but not so sweet as fruit-stand varieties (like Red Delicious for example). They're also smaller but I enjoyed them much more than I've enjoyed apples in years. I kept thinking of Thoreau's essay on wild apples.

“But it is remarkable that the wild apple, which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields or woods, being brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste. The Saunterer’s Apple not even the saunterer can eat in the house... for there you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with.”

And indeed Thoreau is right. I brought a small bag full home with me and nobody liked them at all. But I’m secretly saving the seeds anyway.


Johnson, Paul. Project Byrrhus ( Accessed October 12, 2010.

Thoreau, H.D. Wild Apples; in Henry David Thoreau, Collected Essays and Poems. The Library of America, Second Edition, 2001.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Two Meadowhawks

Over the weekend, Jon Quist and I made our way to the small and secluded Fish Creek drainage just north of Kerckhoff Lake in Madera County (California). There is no easy access to the creek and it's narrow valley - only a difficult dirt road and dusty trails lined with cow patties. Gray pines and oak trees provided shade but the grass was sere and the day was warm. Kerckhoff Lake, after all, is still pretty much a valley lake though nestled in the foothills above Fresno - with an elevation of just under 1,000 feet above sea level.

But Fish Creek itself was full of water and near the lake it was backed-up with cattails and blackberries growing along the margin. There were also a lot of dragonflies flying about - including two kinds of meadowhawks: the striped meadowhawk (Sympetrum pallipes) and the variegated meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum). Both are late summer/fall species with attractive red markings along the thorax and abdomen. They are medium-sized dragonflies and quite striking.

The two species are fairly easy to tell apart - at least the males are. Striped meadowhawks have distinct stripes on the side of the thorax and the dorsal side of the abdomen is predominantly red. Variegated meadowhawks on the other hand may have stripes on the side of the thorax but they also have a more distinct spot at the base of the stripes. More noticeable is that the abdomen is ringed with red, white and gray markings. The forewing also has a pale reddish pink color in some individuals.

We found the striped meadowhawks mating and laying eggs by the stream. They go about things a bit different than most other dragonflies that drop their eggs directly into the water. The meadowhawks remained in copula with both male and female "bouncing" up and down above the moist grass near the creek, with the female dropping eggs into the grass. The timing is quite appropriate as the fall rains are due in just a month or two and the stream bank should be at least a few inches higher than it currently is - flooding the area where the eggs are resting.

The variegated meadowhawk is known to be a migratory species making its way from Mexico north into the US in the spring. Individuals in the US are also known to fly north into Canada in the spring. I'm not sure where these individuals from Madera County will go but more than likely, they'll complete their life-cycle right here in Central California where we only get a few light frosts each year.

The picture of Jon wading in the water is a habitat shot where both species were flying.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bittacus chlorostigma

Hanging flies are unusual insects that often get overlooked. They aren't really flies at all. In fact they don't even look like flies. They are about an inch long and thin, and look a bit like large crane flies but they have four very obvious wings. Flies, of course (including crane flies), only have two wings.

Hanging flies are members of the Mecoptera, an order of insects commonly known as scorpion flies. This name is derived from certain species (in the genus Panorpa) where the males bear what looks like a stinger at the end of the abdomen. Hanging flies, however, do not have this threatening terminus and very often go undetected by even well-informed naturalists. This is unfortunate. They are fascinating insects to watch.

One easy way to tell them apart from crane flies or even damsel flies is to look at the head. Hanging flies (like most other mecopterans) have a pointed head. This picture is of Bittacus chlorostigma that I took earlier this year (in April) along the Merced River in California. It is a fairly common insect (if you know what to look for) in the spring throughout the open oak woodlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills. I have found them most commonly when the California poppies are in full bloom. This particular individual was out when a redbud was flowering a few feet away. The yellow spots (stigmata) at the end of the wings are very diagnostic, even if you can't get a good look at the head.

Hanging flies are best known for their unusual mating ritual where the males capture a prey item (usually a fly or small moth), hang from a small branch (or long blade of grass) with their forelegs, and then release a pheromone that attracts females. This is unusual among insects that use pheromones in that it is the male and not the female that sends the signal. Once a female finds the gift and accepts it, the insects couple. If the gift is too small the female looks elsewhere.

Most of the research that has been done on this interesting behavior comes from the Eastern and Midwestern species of Bittacus. The common California species (B. chlorostigma) is largely un-represented in these kinds of studies. A paper published in 1977 suggested that it was a nocturnal species because so little was known about it. This is certainly not true. I saw a pair exchanging gifts in April of last year above Pine Flat Reservoir. It was mid-morning and the pair was very approachable (unfortunately, I didn't have a good camera with me at the time). Some enterprising student might take this species on as a research project. They shouldn't be hard to find and they are quite attractive.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hoplia Beetles

There's a reddish brown beetle about the size of a large lady bug that you may have noticed on your roses or other flowers in the spring. Here in the Central Valley it shows up toward the end of April or the beginning of May and enjoys resting on velvety petals. If there are a lot of them, the flowers will end up with large areas of feeding damage, but this usually isn't the case. These insects only come out for a single generation a year and their first thought has nothing to do with eating, they are looking for mates.

These interesting insects are called Hoplia beetles. Their name is italicized because it is a generic Latin name – no American species in the genus Hoplia have common names. We have several species in the US and all of them can be recognized by the single large claw at the end of their hind legs. Other beetles have two claws (or occasionally none).

This is a picture of a mating pair of Hoplia dispar, on a blackberry blossom. It’s a common species in California. It is different from other Hoplia species in the shape of the fine white ornamental scales, which are strongly elliptical to almost round. Most other species have more elongate scales or no scales at all.

This side image of also of H. dispar. If you look closely, you can see that some of the scales are partially blue. This is an unusual color for insects but for some reason Hoplia beetles are sometimes colored this way. One very striking beetle is Hoplia caerulea from Spain that has its entire body covered with these pale blue scales (it’s worth doing an image search to see). It looks like a morpho butterfly version of a scarab.

So don’t be too alarmed if you find these beetles on your house plants. You can pick them off by hand and dispose of them if they become a problem. They do have the general appearance of Japanese beetles (though less colorful) but don’t do nearly the damage. One species (Hoplia philanthus) from Europe is known to be a pest in turf and pastures and may require a more aggressive control program. Here in the US, however, our species are much less of a problem.

This last image is Hoplia mucorea which is common in the mid-Atlantic states in the spring. It is less common than H. dispar but can be found in forested areas just as the leaves are starting to break out – around the time of the dogwood blooms. Watch for a small insect flying a foot or two above the forest floor. If you’re jogging or walking fast, you may miss them. They have a ponderous flight pattern because they only use one pair of wings to fly. The other wings (actually the forewings) are only wing covers (called elytra) and are held upright and out of the way of the flying wings. This makes for a slower flight, and in fact, you can often catch up with them and grab them with your hand. Don’t worry, they don’t bite. The worst the will do is give you a stout tickle you as they try and burrow between your fingers. Take a close look, they’re quite interesting and they’re out because it’s spring.

Monday, May 17, 2010

California Condors up Close

Twenty Five years ago, I sat at a museum table and read the sad story of North America's largest bird, the California condor. It was doomed for extinction, or so I imagined and many beleived. The few remaining wild birds had no chance to survive given the environmental hazards that confronted them. The last condors were being taken into a captive breeding program in hopes of saving the species but I had no confidence that this would work. My memory of this has remained clear all these years because of the inevitable loss I felt at that time.

I have followed the story of the condor ever since and have been alternately hopeful and doubtful that the impressive bird would ultimately survive. This changed for me two weeks ago when my friend Steve and I took a couple of days to travel along the coastal highway south of Monterey, California. We knew that the birds were spotted occasionally in the area and hoped to see one, but we were also realistically aware of our slim chances. Our tentative hope changed suddenly, however, when we stopped at one of the many pull-offs to look for marine mammals (we did see harbor seals, sea otters and sea lions throughout the day). Steve glanced up and spotted a pair of the magnificent birds soaring overhead. We watched them for maybe a minute before they disappeared behind the hills of the Santa Lucia Range.

This was quite a thrill, but, as it turned out, we were to see several more at much closer range. A few miles south of Big Sur, we noticed several vultures (turkey vultures at first) swirling around a point just off the road. As we got closer it became obvious that several of them had white patches in the wrong place to be turkey vultures. We hurriedly pulled-off the road for a better look and watched for several minutes as a group of about eight condors flew back and forth near the cliffs where we stood. My attempts to photograph them met with mixed success and then the birds moved on. We walked north around a turn in the road and saw a couple resting on a ledge some distance away. Then we got particularly lucky. There was a heavy flapping sound and a group of five landed on a rocky ledge less than 30 feet below us. Then two other birds landed just a few yards away from them. It was truly a magnificent moment for me. The birds I never expected to see were now right in front of me. We could clearly see their wing tags and even the unique color patterns of their heads. They seemed to be posing for a picture and so I obliged them. Then to put a final touch to the moment, a peregrine falcon soared by, just above their perch, and several hundred feet below a raft of sea lions rolled over to take in more sun.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cardiophorus aeneus

Here is a picture of a small click beetle (just under a centimeter long) that you don't see very often. It's Cardiophorus aeneus, a Western species that shows up infrequently in collections. I came across a population a couple of weeks ago just west of Kerman (Fresno County) California in the tall grass of an alkali meadow. I was actually out looking for another species and just happened to find it. It's pretty distinctive as far as Cardiophorus goes. It has a metallic bronze luster to it although this is hard to see through the thick gray matte of setae. The elytra are also a bit uneven on top, bearing a few broad elevated areas. this is different than most related species where the elytra are fairly flat, or at least evenly convex. It's a nice find.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cabbage Aphids on Wild Mustard

Right now there is a lot of wild mustard in bloom around the Central Valley. It's a pretty plant but it's also a bit of a nuisance for anybody growing cabbage, collards, bok choi, or other cole crops. It's a nuisance not so much because it's hard to get rid of. The bigger problem is that it's a great over-wintering host for cabbage aphids.

I recently found one plant with over a thousand aphids on it. This image will give you an idea of what to look for. Compare this with what you can expect on your cabbage plants if you don't take care of the problem. Cabbage aphids are not just another aphid species that can be treated with the standard aphicides. They're a lot harder to get rid of than say green peach aphids or melon aphids. It's definitely worthwhile taking precautions to avoid this kind of damage. This is particularly true for growers that have their cole crops in the ground early.

This is the time of year when the aphids can jump from wild mustard to your crops. Some of the worst damage can happen early in the year before the aphids' natural enemies become effective. So enjoy the pretty yellow flowers - but preferably at a distance (and down-wind) from your farm.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Gibbifer guatemalae

Here are a few images I took this morning after playing around with the lighting on my camera set-up. I'm much happier with these images than I am with earlier images that I have taken with virtually the same equipment. I use a Sony Cyber-shot camera with a built-in macro lens (which cost me about $350). I have intentionally wanted a smaller and less expensive camera because when I am in the field, my equipment can get bumped around a bit in my backpack. So I have been motivated to figure out how to take reasonably good images of small insects with the same camera.

Some time ago I created a lighted platform to take pictures of pinned specimens. It is a 4-inch bottom of a 5-gallon plastic bucket (the top part cut away) with a circular hole cut out of the bottom through which I take pictures. Around the inside of the modified bucket I have secured small shelving lights (halogen lamps). I place this bottom-side up (with the hole now on top) and place the specimens to be photographed inside the lighted bucket on a white foam base.

This has been OK but the problem has been that the lighting contrast was too great between the bright white background and the specimens. These pictures are different in that I placed a black cloth around the specimens to damped the contrast. I think the coloring of these images is much better.

The Gibbifer specimen is from Honduras. It is an erotylid beetle that is just under an inch long - quite impressive. Central America is famous for its impressive erotylid beetles. The Phymaphora male has one of its antenna knocked off. The female image has both still attached. They are only about 3 mm long and were found in North Carolina near the Eno River feeding on a small fungus under the bark of a dead tree (in the middle of the winter). Phymaphora is an endomychid genus.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Haliplus eremicus

Here's an image of Haliplus eremicus. It is a crawling water beetle that is endemic to the Southwest and occurs only (so far as we know) in Clark County, Nevada. It is of particular interest to me because it is the first insect that I described. I named it H. eremicus because the name reflects a dry desert habitat, where it occurs. This species should be listed as a species of concern on state and national lists. As is well known, water habitats in the southwestern US are under constant pressure to supply urban demands - in this case to Los Angeles and outlying areas. It's hard to tell from this image but in live individuals, the color is more of a cinnamon, or even a salmon, color. It is really quite attractive for a small insect.