Saturday, December 24, 2011

Polyphylla decemlineata

The ten-lined june beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata) is one of the most attractive pests in the Western US. It emerges towards the end of June / early July here in Fresno at which time it begins showing up at porch lights.

It's the unseen larvae (feeding as grubs on roots) that cause the damage, and they are known to feed on a variety of plants. In a suburban neighborhood (were I live) it isn't really possible to know who's yard they are coming from and so controlling them can be a challenge. If you have unhealthy grass (or grassy areas) you might want to treat it. The adults aren't a problem and birds love to eat them, and keep their numbers down for the most part. In rural areas they can be a problem in peak years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Oncopeltus fasciatus

Oncopeltus fasciatus, the milkweed bug, is a wide-ranging lygaeid bug that feeds on several milkweed species (and dogbane) througout North America (although not commonly in the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Northwest). It can be fairly abundant and chances are, you’ve seen one before. They share the same host plant as monarch butterfly larvae and milkweed beetles.

 In California, they can be found every month of the year. I found these individuals just south of King’s Canyon National Park in September this year (at about 3,500 feet).

The habitat was mixed pine / oak forest.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ampedus occidentalis

Ampedus occidentalis is a medium-sized click beetle (about a centimeter long) that lives much of its life in the decaying wood of fallen pines. I found this one under the bark of a dead ponderosa pine several miles east of Jackson, California a couple of weeks ago.

There are several species of Ampedus that have this general color pattern - of the black body with pale (almost orange) wing covers. Many of the species have a black spot at the end of the body. In A. occidentalis, the black spots normally do not touch the sides of the wing covers.

The grove of trees where I found it was a mixed conifer forest of ponderosa pine, white fir and incense cedar (with the occasional oak as well) in El Dorado County at about 4,300’ elevation.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Platycerus virescens

Here's a Thanksgiving beetle somebody might enjoy. It isn't officially the Thanksgiving beetle (which doesn't exist as far as I know), It's actually called the oak stag beetle (Platycerus virescens) but I found it a couple of weeks ago around Thanksgiving time. It isn't a stag beetle of the same proportions as its Asian relatives that can be ten times bigger (or more). Platycerus virescens is only about a centimeter long, but the male still bears a fine set of mandibles and it clearly a lucanid belonging to the Sacred Order of the Lamellate Antennae (christened SOLA by my scarab-collecting colleagues).

Perhaps more appropriately though, I found this individual within a block or two of where the first Thanksgiving was celebrated near Williamsberg, Virginia. I was visiting my son Spencer, who is working on his doctorate in Colonial History at William and Mary, and as I was driving towards town I stopped to have a look in some old fallen timber. This is where I found the beetle and this historical marker.

It surprised me that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Virginia and not in New England - and in 1619, not later with the Pilgrims. Since I'm not a historian, I'll leave it others to explain my (and probably others') confusion on this. I should also mention, that mid-November is not a good time to be walking around the forests near Williamsburg. I was stopped by a gentleman dressed in hunting gear and notified that it wasn't safe to be about. In fact I was looking for beetles on the opening day of muzzle-loader season. Here's a picture of scenic Lake Matoaka near campus, and the habitat typical of P. virescens.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The American Alligator

About six years ago, Erik, Michael and I received an offer we couldn't refuse. Floyd Williams, a park naturalist with North Carolina State Parks, asked if we would like to take a canoe trip out into the swamp of Merchant's Millpond - a cypress-wooded backwater in Eastern North Carolina. I had been working with Floyd for a number of months identifying beetles from the park and he wanted to show us an area we couldn't get to by hiking.

We found a number of Donacia beetles on the pond lilies. We also saw several water moccasins swimming across the water. This was a new experience for me. I knew this particular species was fond of water but I had only seen snakes before on dry land. Watching its movement on water was at first fascinating and then a little disconcerting - especially when one swam right past our canoe. Floyd picked up the creature with his paddle for a closer look as if this was the natural thing to do.

After an hour or two, we came to the far end of the park and clambered out of our canoes near the largest cypress I had ever seen. It was well over 6 feet in diameter and must have been many hundreds of years old. There were also water moccasins all around the trunk. We didn't stay too long. It really wasn't very safe. On the way back, Floyd's wife spotted what we hoped we might see: an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). She pointed to an area covered with duckweed and it took me several moments to finally see the giant reptile. Only the top of its back and head were visible.

We were several yards away from it and I asked Floyd how close we could safely get to it. He suggested that fifteen feet would probably be a good distance and so I got out my camera and told Erik and Michael to paddle to within 15 feet. What I didn't account for was how effective the two of them were at paddling. They indeed stopped at 15 feet but then the canoe's momentum carried us several more feet forward. Sensing this, I hurried and instructed them to paddle the other way while I took a couple of pictures. Fortunately, the alligator was not in a mood to bother us and we managed our retreat without incident. It was quite a rush. I think we got to within seven or eight feet of the animal.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Stenomorpha lecontella

Stenomorpha lecontella is a medium-sized darkling beetle that can be locally common here in the Central Valley of California in the spring. It likes to eat the fresh soft tissues of several plant species when they are just seedlings - as you can see from this picture.

Most individuals are only half an inch long and don't move very fast. Beginning entomology students sometimes have a hard time telling the difference between darkling beetles (especially ones like Stenomorpha) and ground beetles. One very easy way to tell them apart is to watch them in their natural habitat. Darkling beetles move a lot slower and some species will stick their back end in the air when disturbed.

Kathy and I found a large population around a small pond just outside of Fresno on a nature trail. There were painted cement walls and a central display board telling of the many interesting creatures that lived in the area. There were several local species of vertebrates listed but the darkling beetles were a little misrepresented. They were called "stinky head-stander beetles". Now I've been studying beetles for quite a few years (make that decades) but that's the first time I've heard of such a creature as a head-stander beetle. I think the name Stenomorpha lecontella has a nicer ring to it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Yosemite's Tame Coyotes

There are a couple of tame coyotes in Yosemite National Park these days. Kathy and I came across a pair a couple of weeks ago as we were driving north along Highway 41 about 30 minutes north of the park's southern entrance. I've learned that it pays when travelling in national parks to pull over immediately when confronted with a traffic jam (something I've learned from my friend Steve). People are often stopped to take pictures or just to look at some interesting natural phenomenon. This time it turned out to be a big dog (two actually): Canis latrans, commonly known as the coyote.

I've seen a number of coyotes in my life and when I saw this one, I was impressed by its size. For a second I wanted to believe that it might just be a small wolf. Maybe California introduced a pack of wolves, I thought. But the longer I watched the creatures, the more I realized that this wasn't likely. These two animals seemed almost tame. They made no attempt to leave the line of clicking cameras and seemed to be all but asking for hand-outs.

After spending a lovely day in Yosemite Valley, we returned and found the same animals on the same stretch of road as before. At this point I was certain that we were looking at tame coyotes. More cars were stopped and tourists were taking pictures. The thought went through my mind that this animal is known to be the bane of ranchers. People are willing to pay money for their pelts. But you have to admit that they're attractive animals and make for a nice show. Yosemite could do worse.

Monday, October 17, 2011

California Sister

Last weekend Kathy and I spent a day hiking (and biking) around Yosemite Valley. It was a great time to visit the park. The heavy traffic of the summer months was gone, and although there were still many visitors, it wasn't crowded. I don't normally go out of my way to visit national parks because it isn't possible to collect insects without a permit (and permits are usually not worth the trouble getting). But Yosemite Valley can't be avoided indefinitely - especially if you live only a couple of hours away.

This California sister (Adelpha californica) flew by right as we were leaving the Yosemite Visitor's Center. It was circling around the entranceway and I waited for it to land so I could take a picture. Unfortunately, people kept disturbing it each time it landed. I was a little disappointed by how many people didn't even notice it - such a striking insect, and so close. Finally, however, it landed on a manzanita bush nearby and then proceeded to pose for me while I carefully approached it. It is a really beautiful insect. It gets its name for the black and white pattern that is reminiscent of a nun's habit and can be distinguished from other similarly-colored butterflies by the orange/red spots being separated from the wing margin. It feeds on oaks.

The valley itself was cool most of the day with occasional clouds. It had rained earlier in the week and there was a dusting of snow on top of Half Dome. The leaves will be turning soon, I expect. It was hard to leave such a spot - claimed by many to be the most beautiful place on earth.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Latrodectus geometricus

It's grape harvesting time in the Central Valley - actually, it's just coming to an end. It's a couple of weeks behind schedule because of the cooler and wetter spring but the bugs have eventually caught up with the season. Last week while going through several bunches of grapes, a colleague of mine stumbled onto this attractive relative of the black widow spider - the brown widow, Latrodectus geometricus.

This spider is not known for its nasty bight, although it can and, if provoked, will. What is striking is the pretty pattern on its back. It is actually not originally from the US. Having come from Africa some time ago, it seems to prefer the subtropical regions of the US - particularly Southern California. One message from all of this: maybe wear gloves if your in the vineyard.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pseudanostirus pudicus

Here's a click beetle that tends to fairly local in the Rocky Mountains. It can be common in Utah but it is often poorly represented in collections outside the area. It looks similar to the more widespread P. propola but lacks the bold elytral markings. They tend to be more diffuse in P. pudicus.

I found this one at about 6,000 feet up American Fork Canyon (Utah County, Utah) a month ago just as the sun was setting. It was resting on stream-side vegetataion when I discovered it.  I've seen it at elevations as high as 8,000 - 9,000 feet. 


Monday, September 19, 2011

Tragosoma pilosicornis

Tragosoma pilosicornis is small as far as prionid longhorn beetles go. It's a substantial insect, however, by other criteria. This individual is about an inch long but like other bycids, when it extends its antennae, it seems much bigger. This one came bumbling in to my blacklight a week ago just below Sequoia National Park in Tulare County, California (at about 4,700 feet). The main trees in the vicinity were ponderosa pine and incense cedar.

This species is not nearly as common as T. depsarium which also occurs in California (and much of the West and across the Northern Hemisphere). It is also quite a bit less hairy than its more common relative and has very noticeable pitting on the anterior half of the wing covers.

This is the first time I've seen T. pilosicornis alive. The habitat shot is a morning view after Michael and I pulled ourselves out of our sleeping bags.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cosmosalia chrysocoma

Here's a Rocky Mountain longhorn beetle, Cosmosalia chrysocoma. It's one of those variable lepturines with a fairly wide distribution (throughout Canada and in much of the Western US) but with populations that can look unique. It can often be found on flowers. I found this one on a thistle bud.

Some of individuals are much darker (with the black base color showing through the elytral pubescence). I have also seen specimens that almost look gold. I found this one just before dusk up American Fork Canyon (in the same place as the giant ladybird beetle of my last post).

The habitat is spare scrub oak and sagebrush with Douglas fir and boxelder along the canyon floor. It's always a good day when you find bycids about.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Anatis lecontei

We have a handful of giant lady bird beetles in the US. Most of them (four) belong to the genus Anatis. And what's really nice about them is that they're native. Somewhere around half of our lady beetle fauna is introduced - having come aboard on (mostly) misguided efforts to control plant pests (such as aphids and scales). Many of them are competing (sometimes out-competing) our native species.

This species, Anatis lecontei, is fairly common in the certain places of the Rocky Mountains. I found this one up American Fork Canyon (Utah) a couple of weeks ago. It's hard to to get a good sense of scale but it is about 4 to 5 times bigger than your common lady bug. The shadow also obscures a black band that encircles the elytra. It's a handsome creature. The habitat shot is up Tibble Fork Canyon.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

Here is a picture of a beautiful dragonfly - literally and taxonomically. It's common name is the twelve-spotted skimmer. It's scientific name is Libellula pulchella - or the beautiful little dragonfly. It isn't uncommon but it does catch the eye wherever it occurs - which is throughout most of the continental United States. It is only absent from much of Nevada and smaller areas of the SW.

I found this one a couple of weeks ago protecting its territory which consisted of an area on a large pond located near the border of Wasatch County and Utah County a few mile up Utah Canyon. I'm not sure the pond even has a name.

It is pretty much an extension of the Provo River and can be reached by crossing the bridge at Wildwood. But be careful, The famous Heber Creeper (train) is often chugging along the tracks (q.v.). You don't want to be on the bridge when it is passing. Jon and I had a close call.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Black Petaltail

The black petaltail dragonfly (Tanypteryx hageni) is one of only a handful of species in the family Petaluridae. This is an ancient group of dragonflies which makes them truly ancient since dragonflies themselves have a long history in the fossil record. There are only two species of this family in North America. One is eastern the other is western.

I saw this individual a couple of weeks ago just above Wishon Reservoir in eastern Fresno County (California) at an elevation of about 6,700 feet. This is near the highest point known for the species (as recorded in Sidney Dunkle's useful book Dragonflies through Binoculars). It is also further south than the known range which is the general area of the northwest.

We (Spencer, Michael and his friend Zack, and I) were camping along Little Rancheria Creek when we saw it. It was a very scenic spot surrounded by 100 foot (and higher) red firs. The place just felt primeval and was a perfect spot for such an antediluvian creature.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cliff Lake California

Spencer, Michael, Zack (Michael's friend) and I spent a couple of days last week in the high country northeast of Fresno (California). We started from the Cliff Lake trailhead just northwest of Courtright Reservoir (elevation just over 8,100 feet) and climbed about 1,300 feet to Cliff Lake. July is a great time to be backpacking at this elevation. The trail was nice and the temperature couldn't have been better. The one drawback (and it was a big one) was the relentless cloud of mosquitoes that never went away.

This has been a wet year and a lot of snow has accumulated in these mountains. There were several snowpacks still dotting the meadows that we walked through. In some places, the trail had been transformed into a small stream and we were forced to walk along the side. With all this water there were also a lot of snowmelt pools. And in these pools there were mosquito larvae (wigglers) by the thousands (by the millions). At first we thought they would disappear as we got higher. We were wrong. Even though the first sight of Cliff Lake was a welcome reprieve to sore legs, it turned out to be just as mosquito - infested as many other places on the trail. We ended up covering ourselves with repellent and covering our faces with articles of clothing in order to keep our sanity.

We somehow managed to set up a small camp and enjoy the evening (after the mosquitoes went to sleep) but by the next morning we were ready to get away from the torment. Later in the day we drove to Wishon Reservoir and jumped in the cool water. It felt great on our many festering wounds.

I don't mean to make this sound too bleak. Cliff Lake is a beautiful place. Hopefully these pictures will make you want to make the trip. I just advise that you do so at another time than July in a wet year. The hike itself is four to five miles long (one way) and not all that difficult.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cucujus clavipes

Cucujus clavipes is the largest flat bark beetle (Family Cucujidae) in North America. This may not seem like much since most other species in the family (and related groups) are normally not much more than a quarter of an inch long. Cucujus clavipes, by contrast, commonly comes in at over half an inch. It is also striking in its bright reddish color.

It lives under the bark of dead trees and feeds on other insects. I have seen it in a number of US states (north, south, east and west) but it seems to be most abundant in the coniferous forests of the Western US. This individual was found about 40 miles northeast of Fresno (California) under the bark of fallen Douglas fir at about 6,000 feet.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Metrius contractus

Just over three months ago I was spending the night by a neglected dirt road north of Auberry, California (Fresno County). Before nodding off to sleep, I took a walk with my flashlight and came across this black ground beetle - Metrius contractus - wandering in search of something to eat (I suppose).

It was crawling up this large rock covered with lichens and browning moss. It is a squatty thing, not so typical of other ground beetles and just over a centimeter long. Its shape reminded me of the snail-eating carabids in the genus Dicaelus but this resemblance is superficial. In fact the beetle belongs to the primitive ground beetle subfamily Paussinae, a group that is much more diverse in the tropics. Many species are associated with ants in some way. This species may as well although I am unfamiliar with any work confirming this.

The habitat picture is from the spot where I found it, but on the following day.