“The Botanists Among Us: Host plant specialization in insects”

It’s been a busy week for me—just two days after doing a presentation on tiger beetles to the Webster Groves Nature Society’s Entomology Group, I gave a talk to the St. Louis Chapter of the Missouri Native Plant Society. As implied by the title, the talk focused on host plant specialization among insects, first covering the major groups of plant-feeding insects and the evolutionary themes involved in adaption to (and away from) plant-feeding, then moving to examples of different types of host plant specificity and highlighting some of the more interesting insects that I’ve encountered (and managed to photograph) over the years.

Like my talk two nights earlier, it was another fun and lighthearted conversation with a highly engaged crowd, and I appreciate the great interest shown by a group that is normally much more focused on plants than on insects. Once again, it was well-attended locally, but for the benefit of those who were not able to attend the meeting in person and that may be interested in this subject, I’ve prepared a PDF version* of the presentation that you can download and peruse at your convenience.

* All content is copyrighted and may not be reproduced or distributed without written consent.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

2015 Texas Collecting Trip iReport—Fall Tiger Beetles

This is the fourth in a series of “Collecting Trip iReports”—so named because I’ve illustrated them exclusively with iPhone photographs. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles in this series (2013 Oklahoma2013 Great Basin, and 2014 Great Plains), I tend to favor my iPhone camera for general photography—i.e., habitats, landscapes, miscellaneous subjects, etc.—during collecting trips and save my full-sized dSLR camera only for those subjects that I want high-quality macro photographs of. iPhones are not only small, handy, and quick but also capable (within reason) of quite good photographs (see this post for tips on making the most of the iPhone camera’s capabilities). This keeps the amount of time that I need to spend taking photos at a minimum, thus allowing more time for the trip’s intended purpose—collecting! Those photos form the basis of this overall trip synopsis, while photos taken with the ‘real’ camera will be featured in future posts on individual subjects.

Last year during late September and early October I travelled to eastern and central Texas. This trip was all about fall tiger beetles, in particular certain subspecies of the Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris) and Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa) found in that area that I had not yet seen. I enjoy all collecting trips, but fall tiger beetle trips are among the most enjoyable of all—cooler temperature, a changing landscape, and charismatic subjects that are both fun and challenging to find and photograph. This trip was no different, with spectacular weather during the entire week and, for the most part, great success in finding the species/subspecies that I was after. At this point I’d like to acknowledge the help of several people—David Hermann (Ft. Worth, Texas), David Brzoska (Naples, Florida), and Steve Spomer (Lincoln, Nebraska), who generously provided information on species and localities. My success at finding these beetles was due in large part to the information they provided.


Day 1 – Cobb Hollow

My car

Little question about what I am doing out here.

After driving 700 miles from my home near St. Louis, I arrived at the first stop of trip—Cobb Hollow in north-central Texas. This small creek lined with deep, dry sand is close to Forestburg (Montegue County)—the type locality of Cicindela scutellaris flavoviridis, a beautiful, all-green subspecies with the elytra suffused golden-yellow.  The habitat looked very promising from the start, and it wasn’t long before I found the first tiger beetle of the trip—a gorgeous, red nominate Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa formosa). Not long after that I found the first Cicindela scutellaris flavoviridis, and over the next few hours I would find a total of nine individuals. Despite the extensive habitat along the creek the beetles were quite localized, occurring primarily in two dry sand areas within a mile west of the bridge. This spot is actually near the northern limit of the subspecies’ distribution, and several of the individuals showed varying influence from nominate scutellaris with the elytra tending to be more red than yellow-green. There was a diversity of other tiger beetles here as well—C. formosa formosa was the only one that was common, but I did find also a few individuals each of Tetracha carolina, Cicindelidia punctulata, Cicindela splendida, and C. repanda. A very cool place.

Cobb Hollow from bridge

View of Cobb Hollow east from the bridge

Sand bar along creek

Dry sand deposits line the creek.

Robber fly with bumble bee prey

I watched this robber fly snag a bumble bee in mid-flight.

Ted MacRae at Cobb Hollow

Looking down onto the creek from the bridge.


Day 2 – Stalking the Limestone Tiger Beetle

Today was all about looking for the Limestone Tiger Beetle, Cicindelidia politula. I have collected this species previously at several sites in Erath and Somervell Counties, Texas (west of Ft. Worth) and featured photographs from that trip. However, since I would be passing through the area on my way south I decided to spend a day looking for it again and, hopefully, collecting a few more specimens. Cicindelidia politula is related to the much more common and widespread Punctured Tiger Beetle, C. punctulata, but is shiny blue-black with the elytral markings absent or limited to the apices and the abdomen red. I visited several localities—two new ones for me in Erath County and another I had visited previously in Somervell County, with habitats that ranged from rocky clay to white limestone exposures along roadsides and even limestone gravel.

I found a fair number of individuals at the first site (1.7 mi SW Bluff Dale, Jct US-377 & FM-1188), which had a finely ground limestone substrate. Most of the individuals were flushed from the base of clumps of bunch grass and captured when they landed in more exposed situations.

Limestone habitat for Cicindelidia politula

Cicindelidia politula habitat—1.7 mi SW of Bluff Dale.

The beetle had also been reported along the roadsides at the second location (0.4 mi E Jct FM-2481 on CR-539), but the only individual I saw here was on a very coarse crushed limestone 2-track leading off of the main road.

Limestone habitat for Cicindelidia politula

Cicindelidia politula habitat—0.4 mi E Jct FM-2481 on CR-539.

The species was most numerous at the third site in Somervell County (3.4 mi SE Jct US-67 on CR-2013). I collected ten individuals and saw probably that many more on white limestone exposures along the roadside and along a dirt road cut along the base of the hill to the NE side of the highway. Most of the beetles in the latter area were seen along the scraped dirt road (at left in 2nd photo below), although presumably the beetles also utilized the undisturbed, surrounding habitat.

Limestone habitat for Cicindelidia politula

Cicindelidia politula habitat on white, limestone exposures along the roadside.

Limestone habitat for Cicindelidia politula

Cicindelidia politula habitat on white limestone hillside and scraped dirt road.

Catching the beetles at this last locality was challenging—the adults are fast and flighty, and the rough, rocky habitat made it difficult to clamp the net over the beetle and pounce on top of the rim before they were able to find a gap and escape. With practice I found my catch efficiency increased a little bit if I slowly approached the beetle and then made an assertive swing with the net right when the beetle began to fly—the trick is learning how to tell when they are ready to fly (and “assertive” is the key word!). Tiger Beetle Stalker; however, does not quit!

Tiger beetle stalker!

Tiger Beetle Stalker!


Day 3 (Part 1) – Pedernales Fall State Park

This was another locality where Cicindela scutellaris flavoviridis had been recorded. I came here to find this subspecies even though I had seen it two days previously at Cobb Hollow, because that latter population showed some slight intergradation of characters from nominate C. scutellaris and I wanted to get field photographs of a “pure” population. I was pretty excited when I saw extensive dry sand habitat lining the upper bank area along the Perdenales River; however, I found no tiger beetles of any kind after extensive searching through that habitat. I did note the area seemed dry and reasoned that perhaps timely rains had not yet triggered emergence of C. scutellaris, C. formosa, and other sand-loving fall tiger beetles. I did find a small area of wet sand right along the water’s edge where three species of Cicindelidia could be seen: C. ocellata rectilatera, C. trifasciata ascendens, and C. punctulata. I’ve photographed all of these species before, so I didn’t try to spend any time doing so here. However, combined with the species seen the previous two days, this made a total of ten species seen on the trip so far. Although I didn’t find the beetle I was looking for, I marveled at the beauty of the area, especially the Pedernales River with its hard, conglomerate bedrock and mini shut-ins and spent quite a bit of time here taking photographs.

Perdenales River

The Perdenales River is the centerpiece of the state park.

Schistocerca americana or nitens

Schistocerca americana or S. nitens (ID courtesy of Matt Brust).

Perdenales River

Shut-ins are extensive along the Perdenales River.

Poecilognathus sp.

Bee flies (family Bombyliidae), prob. Poecilognathus sp. (ID courtesy Rob Velten).


Day 3 (Part 2) – Lick Creek Park

Another of the Festive Tiger Beetle subspecies that I wanted to look for was Cicindela scutellaris rugata. I had several localities from which this solid blue-green subspecies has been recorded, and this site was the nearest of those that I planned to visit. The drive from Pedernales State Park was longer than I anticipated, so I didn’t get to this spot until close to 6 p.m. At first I worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to even find suitable habitat, but that was no problem as I quickly found the Post Oak Trail and its perfect open, post oak woodland with deep sand substrate. By all accounts the beetles should have been all over the trail but they weren’t. As with the previous site, the area was quite dry as evidenced by the wilted plants along the trail side, and I also note that the previous record from here was on Oct. 23rd—more than three weeks later. Despite the fact that I didn’t find any tiger beetles, I did see a young timber rattle snake (Crotalus horridus) crossing the trail late in the hike—I took a quick shot with the iPhone (see below) and then broke out the big camera and was able fire off a few shots before it left the trail and headed for cover. (Several people walking the trail came upon us, and they were all—happily—more than willing to oblige my requests to stay away until I was finished.)

Sand woodlant habitat for Cicindela scutellaris rugosa

Post oak woodland with dry sand substrate seems to be perfect for Cicindela scutellaris rugata.

Wilted American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Wilted American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).

Timber rattlesnake (Crotolus horridus)

A youngish (prob. ~32″ in length) timber rattlesnake (Crotolus horridus) was a treat to see.


Day 4 – East Texas cemeteries

Cemeteries are often great places to look for tiger beetles because they tend to be located on parcels of land with low agricultural value that were donated by landowners to local churches. Older cemeteries especially tend not to be highly maintained and, thus, offer excellent habitat for tiger beetles. My goals for this day were Cicindela scutellaris rugata and the gorgeous Cicindela formosa pigmentosignata. I had records of both from a couple of cemeteries in eastern Texas (Sand Flat Pioneer Cemetery in Henderson and Morris Chapel Cemetery in Van Zandt Counties) and found good numbers of both along sandy 2-tracks and sparsely to moderately vegetated sand exposures in and around the cemetery grounds. I don’t have any iPhone photographs to share of either of these species, but I did spent a lot of time with the big camera and got a number of photos of each that I am quite pleased with—I’ll share those in future posts. The cemeteries themselves were haunting and poignant, with some headstones dating back to the late 1800s.

Sandy 2-track habitat for Cicindela scutellaris rugata & C. formosa pigmentosignata

Sandy 2-track habitat for Cicindela scutellaris rugata & C. formosa pigmentosignata at Sand Flat Pioneer Cemetery, Henderson County, Texas.

 

Ant mound

Pogonomyrmex sp. poss. barbatus tend their nest entrance (ID courtesy of Ben Coulter).

Sand Flat Pioneer Cemetery

Oldest section of Sand Flat Pioneer Cemetery.

Died Nov 10, 1874

Fallen, but not forgotten—yet (died Nov 10, 1874).

Oldest headstones (late 1800s)

Oldest headstones (late 1800s) at rest under the shade of huge, red-cedar trees.

Oldest person (106 yrs old)

The oldest person died at 106 years of age (born in 1804).

At Morris Chapel Cemetery I found C. formosa pigmentosignata and C. scutellaris rugata on sparsely vegetated deep dry sand 2-track north of the cemetery. I did also manage to get field photos of the former before it got too hot and they became too active. There were also a few of the latter in the open sandy ground just outside the northwestern edge of the cemetery. As with Sand Flat Pioneer Cemetery, I spent a bit of time in the cemetery proper to look at the headstones—the oldest headstone also being the most poignant; a one and a half-year old boy who died in 1881.

Sandy 2-track habitat for Cicindela scutellaris rugata & C. formosa pigmentosignata

Sandy 2-track habitat near Morris Chapel Cemetery.

Morris Chapel Cemetery

A large, spreading post oak shades pioneers at rest.

Died 1881 (age 1½ yrs)

A poignant headstone (died 1881 at 1½ years of age).

After finishing up at Morris Chapel Cemetery I returned to Sand Flat Cemetery to see if I could get more field photographs before the beetles bedded down for the night. The sun was still up when I arrived a little before 6 p.m., but the shadows were long and no beetles were seen. Not one to waste an opportunity, I broke out the big camera anyway and started photographing a large species of bee fly (family Bombyliidae) that was perching on the ground and on the tips of plains snakecotton (Froelichia floridana).

Undet. bee fly

Bee fly (family Bombyliidae), poss. Poecilanthrax lucifer? (ID courtesy Alex Harman).


Day 5 (Part 1) – Cowtown Bowman Archery Club

With both specimens and good field photos of Cicindela scutellaris rugata and C. formosa pigmentosignata in hand, I returned my attention to C. scutellaris flavoviridis. Again, I did already have specimens in hand from Cobb Hollow, but most of them showed some degree of intergradation with nominate C. scutellaris and I was hoping to see some “pure” individuals. Failing to find it at the more southerly locations (Pedernales State Park and Lick Creek Park), I had one more location in Tarrant County where the subspecies had been recorded—a sand borrow pit near the entrance of Cowtown Bowman Archery Club. Once again I searched the area thoroughly for a couple of hours during mid-morning but did not see the subspecies or any other tiger beetles. Conditions were overcast and cool (72°F), but I do not think this explains the absence of adults. Rather, I think I was on the early side of the season and they just hadn’t started emerging at this site.

While I was at the site I found several tiger beetle larval burrows in a moderately vegetated area near the deeper sand deposits that were occupied by Tetracha carolina, so I used the “stab” or “ambush” method to collect several 3rd instars for an attempt at rearing. For those of you who are not familiar with this technique, a knife is set at a 45° angle with the tip in the soil about 1″ from the edge of the burrow. Then you wait, sometimes for quite a while, until the larva reappears at the top of the burrow and STAB the knife assertively into the soil to block the larva from retreating. The larvae are extremely wary with excellent vision and will usually drop back down immediately when they see you, so you have to be ready and act quickly. Once the retreat is blocked, a simple twist of the knife to expose the larva is all that is needed. I prepared larval habitats by placing native soil with as intact a top layer as possible in plastic critter carriers, made a starter hole for each larva with a pencil, dropped each larva into one of the holes, and then pushed the soil to seal the burrow entrance. This prevents the larvae from crawling right back out of the starter burrow, which can result in them encountering and fighting each other. The larvae will eventually reopen the burrow entrance, but after being sealed inside for a while they usually accept the burrow and further modify it to suit their needs.

 

Sandy grassland habitat for Tetracha prob. carolina

Sandy grassland habitat for Tetracha carolina.

Larval burrows (lower left) can be recognized by their clean, almost perfectly round, beveled edge. The presence of fresh soil diggings cast to one side (upper right) indicates the burrow is occupied by an active larva.

Tetracha prob. carolina larval burrow

Tetracha carolina larval burrow with cast soil diggings.

Using the “stab” or “ambush” method to collect larvae. One must have patience to successfully use this method.

"Stab 'n; grab" method to collect tiger beetle larvae (Tetracha prob. carolina)

Using the “stab” or “ambush” method to collect tiger beetle larvae.


Day 5 (Part 2) – Cobb Hollow (epilogue)

Although I had found Cicindela scutellaris flavoviridis at this site on the first day of the trip, I had not taken any field photographs in hopes of finding a more “pure” population at one of the more southerly locations. That did not happen, so I returned to Cobb Hollow on this last day in the field to get field photographs from the population there. Temperatures were a bit cooler (mid-70s) and cloud cover was variable, actually sprinkling when I arrived mid-afternoon but eventually clearing. This seemed to have no detrimental effect on adult presence, and it may have actually helped as I was able to photograph the very first individual that I found to my heart’s content. I collected that individual and the next three that I saw by hand and found two more over the next hour—all on the same deep, dry sand bars west of the bridge where I had seen them previously. Curiously, Cicindela formosa was strangely absent from these same areas where they had been so numerous a few days earlier.

Habitat for Cicindela formosa formosa and C. scutellaris flavoviridis

Deep, dry sand deposit where most of C. scutellaris flavoviridis were seen.

On the east side of the bridge I collected two more Tetracha carolina in the same moderately vegetated sandy clay spot as last time, then went on to the furthest dry sand bar where I found and photographed (but did not collect) a single C. formosa (only one shot before it took off). I also found a female green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) sitting on her egg mass and got some nice macro photos as well as this iPhone shot (talk about a face only a mother could love!).

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Female green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) atop her egg mass.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this collecting trip iReport. Stay tuned for true macro photographs of the tiger beetles and other insects/arthropods that I photographed on this trip in more subject-specific posts. You are also welcome to leave feedback in the comments below.

Ted MacRae w/ field collecting equipment & camera

© Ted C. MacRae 2016

Oklahoma Collecting Trip iReport

I’m back home after my week-long collecting trip to western Oklahoma, and at the risk of sounding hyperbolous I can only describe it as one of the most successful collecting trips I’ve ever had. Seriously! These kinds of trips don’t happen all that often for a variety of reasons—timing is off, rains didn’t happen, weather was uncooperative, etc. etc. Once in a while, though, everything comes together, and this was one of those times. The trip was also a return to my roots so to speak—I’ve been rather distracted in recent years with tiger beetles, but jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) and, to a lesser extent longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae), are really the primary focus of my taxonomic studies. It had been several years since I’d had a good “jewel beetle trip,” so that was the focus of this trip. In planning the trip, I recalled seeing jewel beetle workings in several woody plant species in the same area during last September’s trip, and the occurrence of May rains seemed to bode well for my early June timing.

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

My instincts proved to be justified—in seven days in the field I collected an estimated 1000–1500 specimens representing at least two dozen species of Buprestidae and a dozen or more Cerambycidae. More important than the numbers, I collected a number of species in good series that I have either not or only rarely collected before, and in fact the second beetle that I collected turned out to be a new state record! Of course, I also brought along my full-sized camera and associated gear and photographed many of the species that I collected. I will feature these photos in future posts, but for this post I thought it might be fun to give a high level view of the trip illustrated only with photos taken with my iPhone (which I also carry religiously in the field with me). The iPhone is great for quick snaps of scenery and miscellaneous plants and animals for which I don’t feel like breaking out the big camera, or as a prelude to the big camera for something I’d like to share right away on Facebook. Moreover, there are some types of photos (landscapes and wide-angles) that iPhones actually do quite well (as long as there is sufficient light!).

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Atop the main mesa at Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

My first destination was Gloss Mountains State Park (Major Co.), a stunning system of gypsum-capped, red-clay mesas. I’ve already found a number of rare tiger beetles here such as Cylindera celeripes (Swift Tiger Beetle), Amblycheila cylindriformis (Great Plains Giant Tiger Beetle) and Dromochorus pruinina (Frosted Dromo Tiger Beetle), and in the past two falls I’ve found two interesting jewel beetle records: Chrysobothris octocola as a new state record, and Acmaeodera macra as a northern range extension. On this trip, I started out beating the mesquite  (Prosopis glandulosa) and immediately got the longhorned beetle Plionoma suturalis—a new state record! They were super abundant on the mesquite, and I collected several dozen specimens along with numerous C. octocola as well. I then moved over to the red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which was showing a high incidence of branch dieback, and collected nice series of several buprestids, including what I believe to be Chrysobothis ignicollis and C. texanus. Up on top of the mesa there are small stands of hackberry (Celtis laevigata) and soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), both of which are very good hosts for Buprestidae. Not much was on the soapberry, but I beat large series of several Buprestidae from the hackberry, including what I believe to be Chrysobothris caddo and—the real prize—Paratyndaris prosopis! My old friend C. celeripes was also out in abundance, so I collected a series to add to my previous vouchers from this site. Back down below, I marveled at a juvenile western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) in the area where I found some more A. cylindriformis larval burrows. Daylight ran out before I could dig them up, and after 11 hours in the field I was exhausted, so I returned the next morning and got one 1st- and two 3rd-instar larvae and went back up on top of the mesa and beat several more P. prosopis from the hackberry.

Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

My second stop was at Alabaster Cavern State Park (Woodward Co.), where C. celeripes was again abundant on the gypsum-clay exposures surrounding an impressive gorge thought to be a collapsed cave complex. I focused on beating hackberry because of the success with buprestids on this plant at Gloss Mountains SP, and although they were not quite as abundant here as at Gloss Mountains I still managed to end up with good series of C. caddo and several species of Agrilus. Because I had spent the morning at Gloss Mountains, I had only a partial day to explore Alabaster Caverns and, still getting used to the weight of the camera bag on my back, decided to leave the big camera in the car. This was a mistake, as I encountered my first ever bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) and had to settle for iPhone photos of this species—the photo above being the best of the bunch. An approaching storm put an end to my second day after another 10 hours in the field, and I drove an hour to Woodward.

Moneilema sp. on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Moneilema sp. on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

My third day started out at nearby Boiling Springs State Park, a riparian oasis on sandy alluvium alongside the nearby Cimarron River. The woodlands are dominated by hackberry and American elm, and although a few buprestids were beaten from hackberry and honey locust (Gleditisia triacanthos), the numbers and diversity were not enough to hold my interest in the spot. After lunch, I decided to return to Alabaster Caverns SP and explore some other areas I had not had a chance to explore during the previous partial day. It’s a good thing that I did, as I ended up finding a nice population of longhorned cactus beetles in the genus Moneilema associated with prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaecantha). I collected a nice series of adults and also learned a few lessons in how to photograph these beetles on their viciously protective host plants. The photo above gives a taste of what will come in the photos that I took with the big camera. After eight hours in the field and darkness falling, I drove two hours to Forgan in Beaver Co.

Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

Day 4 in the field started out cold and ominous, having stormed heavily during the previous night and with thick clouds still hanging in the sky. I feared the day might be a wash but decided to venture to Beaver Dunes State Park anyway and take my chances (beating can still be productive even in cold weather as long as the foliage is not wet). It’s a good thing that I did, as the buprestids were as numerous as I’ve ever seen them. The park’s central feature is a system of barren sand dunes that are frequented by ORV enthusiasts and surrounded by hackberry woodlands. The park also has a reservoir and campground, around which are growing a number of cottonwoods (Populus deltoides).

Hackberry Bend Campground, Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

Hackberry Bend Campground, Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

These hackberrys and cottonwoods proved to be extraordinarily productive. On the former I collected large series of several species of Chrysobothris and Agrilus, and while I collected fewer Buprestidae on the latter, these included Agrilus quadriguttatus and Poecilonota cyanipes! The latter species I had never collected until last year (from Cerceris fumipennis wasps), and beating the lower branches of the declining cottonwoods produced a series of about a dozen specimens. I also got one specimen on black willow (Salix nigra), along with a few Chrysobothris sp. and what I take to be Agrilus politus. Also in a low branch of one of the cottonwoods was a bird’s nest with a single egg that, according to Facebook comments, either represents the American Robin or a Gray Catbird. (I returned the next day and saw two eggs in the same nest.)

American Robin or Gray Catbird nest w/ egg | Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

American Robin or Gray Catbird nest w/ egg | Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

As the day drew to a close, I found two interesting longhorned beetle species at the edge of the dunes: one large, powdery gray Tetraopes sp. on milkweed (Asclepias sp.), and huge numbers of Batyle ignicollis evidently perched on the yellow spiked inflorescence of an as yet undetermined plant. I have seen this species on many occasions, but always in low numbers, yet here were literally hundreds of individuals on the plants, all having assumed a characteristic pose on the inflorescence suggesting that they had bedded down for the night. I only spent eight hours in the field on this day because of the late start, and as darkness approached I began the two-hour drive to Boise City.

Black Mesa landscape

Sculpted sandstone landscape in the vicinity of Black Mesa State Park, Cimarron Co., Oklahoma

The final two days in the field were supposed to be spent exploring the area around Black Mesa in the extreme northwest corner of Oklahoma, and another hour of driving was needed to get to the area from Boise City. I first went to Black Mesa State Park, and while the landscape was stunning (see above) the area was extremely dry. I feared the collecting would not be at all productive in this area but wanted to give the area a good effort before making a call. As I approached the entrance to the park, I saw a jeep parked by the side of the road with a license plate that read “Schinia,” which I recognized as a genus of noctuid moths that are very popular with collectors. I pulled over and talked to the driver, who was indeed a lepidopterist from Denver and had just arrived himself. We talked and exchanged contact information, and learning of my interest in beetles he directed me to a small stand of Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii) and one-seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma) on a sculpted sandstone escarpment not far from the park. I found the spot, and although I beat three Chrysobothris sp. from the first juniper tree that I whacked, another hour of beating produced only one more beetle from the juniper and nothing from the oak. I returned to the spot where we had met and encountered him again on his way out! We stopped and chatted again and found a few specimens of what I take to be Typocerus confluens on the yellow asters, but by then I was having my doubts about staying in the area. I told him I was going to check out a ravine in the park and then decide.

Petrified forest | Black Mesa State Park, Cimarron Co., Oklahoma

Petrified forest | Black Mesa State Park, Cimarron Co., Oklahoma

The petrified forest ended up being the only interesting thing I found in the ravine—the area was so dry that I think even the real trees were almost petrified! At any rate, it was clear that I was not going to have much success in this area. I looked at my watch, knowing that it would take three hours to drive back to Beaver Dunes, and estimated that if I left now I could get in about three hours of collecting at Beaver Dunes where I’d had so much success the previous day. Thus, I did what I rarely do on a collecting trip—drive during the afternoon!

Beaver Dune

The main dune at Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma.

A chunky grasshopper nymph inhabiting the dune

A chunky grasshopper nymph inhabiting the main dune.

I arrived back at Beaver Dunes with several hours of daylight still remaining, so I decided to take a look around the main dunes before heading towards the woody plants. I’ve actually visited Beaver Dunes previously, on the tail end of a fall tiger beetle trip in 2011. At that time I had seen only the rather common and widespread species Cicindela formosa (Big Sand Tiger Beetle) and C. scutellaris (Festive Tiger Beetle), but I thought there could still be a chance to see the much less common C. lengi (Blowout Tiger Beetle). Early June, however, is a little late to see the spring tigers, and in fact I saw only a single C. formosa. Nevertheless, I find dune habitats irresistible—alien habitats occupied by strange plants and animals, and I spent a bit of time exploring the main dune before heading back towards where I had collected so many Buprestidae the previous day.

Low water levels in the reservoir at Beaver Dunes are a result of three years of drought.

Low water levels in the reservoir at Beaver Dunes are a result of three years of drought.

Western Oklahoma, like many parts of the central U.S., has suffered rather severe drought conditions for the past several years. This was evident not only in the large amount of branch dieback seen in the woody vegetation of the area (and probably a contributor to my success at collecting Buprestidae) but also the very low water level in the park reservoir. In the photo above the small cottonwood saplings in the foreground and large cottonwood trees in the left background indicate the normal water level. Cottonwoods, of course, like to keep their feet wet, and the trees around this reservoir—left high and dry by the drought—have responded with major branch dieback and lots of subsequent adventitious sprouting at the bases of the main branches. It was from this adventitious growth that I had beaten most of the Poecilonota cyanipes that I collected the previous day, so I repeated the cottonwood circuit in the hopes of collecting more. Not only did I collect more, but I collected twice as many as the previous day, so I ended up with a very nice series of more than two dozen individuals of the species from the two days collecting. I also did a little more beating of the hackberry trees which had produced well the previous day and collected several more Chrysobothris caddoC. purpureovittata, and Agrilus spp. such as A. leconteiA. paracelti, and perhaps others. When I arrived I was unsure whether I would stay here the following day, but eventually I decided I had sampled the area about as well as I could and that I would go back to the Gloss Mountains for my last day in Oklahoma. Thus, as the day began to wane I began hiking back to the car and spent the next two hours driving back to Woodward to spend the night.

Steep slope below the main mesa | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Steep slope below the main mesa | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Echinocereus sp. | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Echinocereus sp. | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Arriving at the Gloss Mountains the next morning was like coming home! I’ve spent so much time at this place and found so many great insects, yet every time I come here I find something new. Today, however, my goals were more modest—I wanted to improve on my series of Paratyndaris prosopis and Chrysobothris texanus, so I focused most of my time beating the hackberry and juniper on top of the mesa and continued beating the juniper down below as well. Success! I collected four more Paratyndaris off of the hackberry, but the C. texanus were far more abundant on this day than they were earlier in the week—I probably got another two dozen individuals of this species. Of course, I also got distracted taking photographs of a number of things, so the day went far more quickly than I realized. I wanted to leave around 6 pm and get in about three hours of driving so that I would have time to make it into Missouri the next morning and have a nice chunk of time to collect before finishing the drive and arriving home on Saturday night. It was actually closer to 7:30 pm before I hit the road, the reason for the delay being the subject of a future post (I will say that BioQuip’s extendable net handle comes in handy for much more than collecting tiger beetles!).

Dolomite glades | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

Dolomite glades | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

Long Creek | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

Long Creek | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

For my last day of collecting, I decided to stop by at one of my favorite spots in the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri—Hercules Glades Wilderness in the Mark Twain National Forest. I’ve been to this place a number of times over the years, but in recent years my visits have usually been late in the season to look for the always thrilling to see Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (Prairie Tiger Beetle). It had actually been about 25 years since I’d visited these glades during the spring, and because of the success I’d had collecting in Oklahoma I was really optimistic that I would find the same here. Sadly (and inexplicably), insect activity was very low, and it didn’t take long for this to become apparent as branch after branch that I beat along the trail through the dry-mesic forest down to Long Creek yielded nothing. By the time I got to the creek I still had not collected a single beetle. A consolation prize was found along the creek, as beating the ninebark (Physocarpos opulifolius) produced a few specimens of the pretty little Dicerca pugionata, and a couple more consolation prizes were found further up the trail approaching the main glade when I saw a Cylindera unipunctata (One-spotted Tiger Beetle) run across the trail and then beat a single Agrilus fuscipennis from a small persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tree at the edge of the glades. It had been about 25 years since I last collected the latter species, so I was very happy to see it, but no more were seen despite beating every persimmon tree that I saw during the rest of the day. At the end of the day, I had hiked seven miles and collected only six beetles—a rather inauspicious ending to what was otherwise a wonderfully successful trip.

A rare ''selfie''

The author takes a rare ”selfie” at Gloss Mountains State Park.

Arriving back at the car at the end of the day on the last day of an extended collecting trip is always a little depressing—despite the vagaries of travel, cheap hotel beds, meals on the go, and general exhaustion, I’m never happier than I am when I am in the field. Still, the success that I’d had during this trip did much to ease my depression, and arriving home late that night and seeing my girls again (who waited up for me!) finished off any remaining depression.

© Ted C. MacRae 2013

Another autumn oedipodine

Shortgrass/sage brushland habitat in Medicine Bow Natl. Forest, Wyoming

In September 2010, Chris Brown and I explored shortgrass/sage brushland habitat atop the Laramie Mountains in southeastern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest (location “J” on this map). We were entering the final days of our 7th Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™ and, to that point, had found every tiger beetle species we had set out to look for. This day, however, was the official “skunk” day of the trip, for although we did see one Cicindela limbalis (Common Claybank Tiger Beetle)—collected live to become the subject of one of the crappiest tiger beetle photos I’ve ever taken—we did not see the tiger beetle that we were there to see; Cicindela longilabris (Boreal Long-lipped Tiger Beetle). Of course, I rarely have trouble finding consolation on a skunk day, and during fall this is even easier—the deep blue sky, crisp fall air, and vivid colors of a morphing landscape are enough to make even a bad day of insect collecting better than a good day of just about anything else. And then there are the band-winged grasshoppers (family Acrididae, subfamily Oedipodinae)!  When there are no tiger beetles to be had, there are almost always members of this group around, and other than tiger beetles I don’t think there is another group of insects that I enjoy photographing more.

Arphia pseudonietana (red-winged grasshopper) | Medicine Bow Natl. Forest, Wyoming

As we walked the trails not finding tiger beetles, I noticed these very dark grasshoppers every once in a while. They flew with a particularly noisy crackling sound that exposed bright red hind wings before dropping to the ground and instantaneously becoming almost completely invisible. Once I accepted that tiger beetle photography just wasn’t gonna happen that day, I began paying attention to these grasshoppers and, after working a few individuals, finally found one who was willing to let me get close enough for some photos. I’m not terribly fond of this first photo—the perspective is still too high as I had not yet learned by that time to get down flat on my belly for photographing anything on the ground (remember, this was two years ago). Nevertheless, it is the only one that I have that shows the entire body of the grasshopper. Since this location isn’t too far west of the Nebraska border, I figured an identification should be possible using the Nebraska grasshopper guide (Brust et al. 2008)—based on that work and subsequent examination of photos at BugGuide, I surmise this individual represents Arphia pseudonietana (red-winged grasshopper). There are other species of Arphia in Nebraska, some of which are easily confused with A. pseudonietana; however, most of these are more common further east. The only other species in the genus that occurs west into Wyoming is A. conspersa (speckle-winged grasshopper), and although it is similar in appearance and may have red hind wings (though more commonly orange to yellowish), adults are most common during spring and early summer. Arphia pseudonietana adults, on the other hand, are most active during mid-summer through fall.

The pronotum bears a single notch just in front of the middle.

Grasshoppers, particularly in the western states, tend to be loathed by ranchers who see them as competitors with cattle for meager forage resources, especially in dry years. This species does feed preferentially on a variety of grasses such as western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii), buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis); however, it doesn’t seem to occur at economically important levels except in association with other, more numerous grasshopper species. I’m glad to know this, because for some reason I just don’t want anybody regarding band-winged grasshoppers of any kind as a pest. Other grasshoppers, fine—just not my beloved bandwings!

I presume this 5th instar nymph also represents A. pseudonietana

Later in the day I came across this presumed 5th-instar grasshopper nymph, and although it was quite skittish I eventually managed to get this single photograph before it resumed its frenetic hopping and I gave up in frustration. This is one of the better “one-shots” that I’ve managed to take—my only criticism being that the focus was just a tad too deep to catch the front metafemoral face. I really didn’t have much time to setup for this shot—once I got the critter reasonably in-frame I fired! Anyway, I’m inclined to think this also represents A. pseudonietana, although I’m less confident in that ID than I am for the adult as I wasn’t able to find a real good comparative photograph. Nymphs of A. pseudonietana are apparently most common from mid-spring to mid summer, so the seasonality is a bit off. I would be grateful to any acridophile who stumbles across this post and can provide an ID confirmation or correction (for either the nymph or the adult). Until then, I leave you with a shot that shows why I love fall regardless of whether I’m finding insects!

Quaking aspen glows under the late September sun.

REFERENCE:

Brust, M. L., W. W. Hoback and R. J. Wright.  2008. The Grasshoppers (Orthoptera: Acrididae and Romaleidae) of Nebraska.  University of Nebraksa-Lincoln Extension, 138 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

2013 ESA World of Insects Calendar Selection

Today I received word from Richard Levine at the Entomological Society of America that one of my photos had been selected for the 2013 version of their famed World of Insects Calendar!

Excuse me for a moment please… (pumps fist, stirs the pot, does a very bad moon walk…)

Okay, I’m back. Honestly, this is an honor that I did not expect—at least not yet. Historically dominated by such giants in the world of insect macrophotography as Piotr Naskrecki,  Thomas Myers, and others, competition for ESA’s World of Insects Calendar is fierce. Last year more than 500 photographs were submitted for 13 slots (12 months and an introductory page) by 98 photographers from around the world. I was one of those photographers, though not selected (no surprise as I was a first-time submitter). However, I took great pleasure in seeing fellow bug blogger Adrian Thysse nab two of the 2012 slots, and I increased my resolve to try again for next year with a selection of eight mostly newer photographs.

At the suggestion of Dave Stone, I present each of those photos below along with a short description of why I submitted it. However, I’m not going to tell you which photo ultimately was selected—I thought it might be fun to see which photo you think was selected and why. As added incentive for guessing, I’m going to award 10 BitB Challenge points to each person who correctly picks the selected photograph. BitB Challenge Session #6 is coming down to the wire, so this could have a big impact on the overall standings.

The 2013 Calendar will become available for sale later this year (probably October) at the ESA website—last year’s version cost only $12 (discounted to $8 for ESA members, and free for those attending the annual meeting [which I will be attending this year]).


Megaphasma denticrus (Phasmida: Diapheromeridae) – giant walkingstick

From North America’s longest insect (21 Aug 2009).  This is one of my earlier super-closeup attempts. I liked the combination of blue and brown colors on the black background.


Buprestis rufipes (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) – redbellied Buprestis

From Special Delivery (13 July 2010).  The use of a white box shows off the brilliant (and difficult-to-photograph) metallic colors well, and I like the animated look of the slightly cocked head.


Edessa meditabunda (Hemiptera: Pentatomidae) – alquiche chico

From  (18 May 2011). I found these Edessa meditabunda stink bug eggs on the underside of a soybean leaf in Argentina almost ready to hatch. The developing eye spots in each egg gives the photo a “cute” factor rarely seen in such super close-ups.


Cicindela formosa generosa (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae) – eastern big sand tiger beetle

From  (10 May 2011). I like this slightly panned out view because of the sense of scale and landscape created by the inclusion of the plantlets and the view over the small rise.


Trimerotropis saxatilis (Orthoptera: Acrididae) – lichen grasshopper

From  (15 July 2011). Some of my favorite insect photos are not only those that show the bug in all its glory, but also tell a story about its natural history. This nymph is almost invisible when sitting on the lichens that cover the sandstone exposures in its preferred glade habitat. 


Tetracha floridana (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae) – Florida metallic tiger beetle

From  (23 August 2011). I used extension tubes to improve the quality of flash lighting (decreased lens to subject distance results in greater apparent light size), and I like the symmetry of the composition.


Spissistilus festinus (Hemiptera: Membracidae) – threecornered alfalfa hopper

From  (17 September 2011). Even though both the insect and the background are green, there is sufficient value contrast to create a pleasing composition, punctuated by the bizarre zig-zag pattern of the eyes.


Crossidius coralinus fulgidus (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae) – a rabbitbrush longhorned beetle

From  (4 October 2011). The blue sky background provides a pleasing contrast with the colors of this particular beetle and flowers.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

One-Shot Wednesday: two-striped grasshopper nymph

Melanoplus bivittatus (Two-striped Grasshopper) nymph | Jerseyville, Illinois

As the heat of summer solidifies its chokehold over the middle and southern latitudes of North America, grasshopper nymphs will begin to ramp up their development. I see grasshoppers commonly in my soybean field trials, where their feeding presents more of an annoyance to me than an actual threat to yields.

I photographed this particular individual on almost this same date last year in one of my Illinois soybean trials, not knowing for sure which species it represented. There was no particular reason for only taking this one single photograph, other than it was perched nicely when I saw it and that I did not feel like taking the time to chase it into another good pose after my first shot disturbed it.

Later in the season I saw numerous adults representing Melanoplus differentialis (differential grasshopper), a common species in this area, and assumed this was its nymph. However, a closer look at the photo suggests it represents the closely related M. bivittatus (two-striped grasshopper). While adults of these two species are easily distinguished based on coloration, the nymphs can look very similar (especially in their earlier instars) and are distinguished on the basis of the black femoral marking—more or less solid in M. bivittatus and broken into chevrons that create a “herringbone” pattern in M. differentialis.

Wing pad size and relative body proportions suggest this is a fourth-instar nymph.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Tucuras, langostas, y saltamontes

Staleochlora viridicata | Cordoba Province, Argentina (March 2011)

Tucuras, langostas, and saltamontes are names in Argentina for what we in North America call grasshoppers (order Orthoptera, superfamily Acridoidea). Argentina certainly has its share of species, some of which can only be described as “gigantes”! During my first week out in the field at my home base here in western Buenos Aires Province, I encountered the hefty-bodied female in the photo below and was immediately reminded of a similar-looking individual I had photographed in neighboring Córodoba Province during my March 2011 visit. Both had short but well-developed wing pads that at first suggested they might be mature nymphs of an incredibly large species. However, when I noted both were females I decided they likely represented adults of some type of lubber grasshopper (family Romaleidae), many of which—especially the females—are brachypterous (short-winged) and heavy-bodied as adults. A little searching revealed that both belong to the genus Elaeochlora, each looking very much like the species pictured on an Argentine postal stamp and identified as E. viridis (update 9 Mar 2012 – Sam Heads has identified these as Staleochlora viridicata).

Staleochlora viridicata| Buenos Aires Province, Argentina (March 2012)

Getting at least a genus name for these individuals then prompted me to go back to photographs I had taken last year of other types of grasshoppers. One of these, Eutropidacris cristata, is truly one of the largest grasshoppers I have ever seen (update 9 Mar 12 – Sam Heads notes that Eutropidacris is now a synonym of Tropidacris). This individual was seen in a soybean field in the northern Argentina province of Chaco. These insects, known in Argentina as “La tucura quebrachera,” apparently occur in outbreak numbers periodically and, understandably owing to their monstrous size, generate a lot of attention. In Brazil the sepcies is known as “gafanhoto-do-coqueiro” (coconut tree grasshopper),

Tropidacris cristata | Chaco Province, Argentina (March 2011)

One of the more colorful grasshoppers I have seen in Argentina is Chromacris speciosa. The individual below was photographed last March in eastern Córdoba Province, also on soybean. It’s tempting to presume that the green and yellow coloration has a cryptic function, but apparently the nymphs of this species are brightly colored red and black and have the habit of aggregating on foliage. This is classic aposematism (warning coloration) to indicate chemical protection from predation, so perhaps there is a similar function to the adult coloration as well.

Chromacris speciosa | Cordoba Province, Argentina (March 2011)

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Best of BitB 2011

Welcome to the 4th Annual BitB Top 10, where I get to pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year. As an insect macrophotographer I still feel like a relative newcomer, although with three seasons under my belt fewer and fewer people seem to be buying it anymore. Granted I’ve learned a lot during that time, but the learning curve is still looking rather steep. I don’t mind—that’s the fun part! With that said, I present a baker’s dozen of my favorite photographs featured here during 2011. I hope they reflect the learnings I’ve had the past year and maybe show some progress over previous years (2009, 2008 and 2010).

One more thing—I’m including a special bonus for the first time in this year’s edition. Each of the photos shown below is linked to a 1680×1120 version that may be freely downloaded for use as wallpaper, printing in calendars, or any other use (as long as it’s personal and non-profit). It’s my way of saying thanks for your readership and support.


From  (posted 8 Jan). I’ve done limited photography with prepared rather than live specimens. However, the recreated aggressive-defensive posture of this greater arid-land katydid (Neobarrettia spinosa)—or “red-eyed devil”—was too striking to pass up. A clean background allows every spine and tooth to be seen with terrifying clarity.


From  (posted 6 Feb). I had never seen a cactus fly until I encountered this Nerius sp. I’m especially fond of the bizzarely-shaped head and un-fly-like spines on the front legs.


From  (posted 17 Feb). This photo of a fungus weevil, Phaenithon semigriseus, is one of the first where I nailed the focus right on the eye at such a magnitude of closeup (~3X) and also got the composition I was looking for. I didn’t notice at the time, but the beetle seems to be “smiling.”


From  (posted 28 Mar). One of the field techniques I’ve been practicing this year is actually holding the plant with the subject in one hand, resting the camera on my wrist and controlling it with the other hand, and manipulating the position of the plant to achieve a desired composition. It’s a difficult technique to master, but the results are worth it. The jumping spider, Euophrys sutrix, represents one of my earliest successful attempts with this technique.


From  (posted 30 Mar). This South American tree fruit weevil looks like it is sitting quite calmly on a branch. In reality, it never stopped crawling while I attempted to photograph it. Crawling subjects are not only difficult to focus on but also almost always have a “bum” leg. I achieved this photo by tracking the beetle through the lens and firing shots as soon as the center focus point flashed, playing a numbers game to ensure that I got at least one with all the legs nicely positioned. I’d have been even happier with this photo if I had not clipped the antennal tip.


From  (posted 4 May). Face shots of predatory insects are hard to resist, and in this one of the fiery searcher beetle, Calosoma scrutator, the angle of the subject to the lighting was perfect for showing off every ridge and tooth in its impressive mandibles.


From  (posted 10 May). I’ve taken plenty of lateral profile shots of tiger beetles, but I like this slightly panned out one especially because of the sense of scale and landscape created by the inclusion of the plantlets and the view over the small rise.


From  (posted 18 May). I found these Edessa meditabunda stink bug eggs on the underside of a soybean leaf in Argentina almost ready to hatch. The developing eye spots in each egg gives the photo a “cute” factor rarely seen in such super close-ups.


From  (posted 15 July). Some of my favorite insect photos are not only those that show the bug in all its glory, but also tell a story about its natural history. This nymphal lichen grasshopper, Trimerotropis saxatilis, is almost invisible when sitting on the lichens that cover the sandstone exposures in its preferred glade habitat. 


From  (posted 23 Aug). I know this is the second beetle face shot I’ve included in the final selections, but it was while photographing this rare Florida metallic tiger beetle, Tetracha floridana, in the middle of the night that I discovered the use of extension tubes to improve the quality of flash lighting (decreased lens to subject distance results in greater apparent light size). This is perhaps one of the best illuminated direct flash photographs that I’ve taken, and I also like the symmetry of the composition.


From  (posted 17 Sep). The three-cornered alfalfa hopper (Spissistilus festinus) is a common pest of alfalfa and soybean in the U.S. However, despite its abundance, I’ve never noticed the bizarre zig-zag pattern of the eyes until I took this photo. Even though both the insect and the background are green, there is sufficient value contrast to create a pleasing composition. Bumping up the ISO and a lower FEC setting prevented overblowing the light greens—easy to do with full flash macrophotography.


From  (posted 4 Oct). This longhorned beetle had settled in for the night on its Ericamera nauseosa host plant, allowing me to use higher ISO and lower shutter speed settings with a hand-held camera to achieve this very pleasing blue sky background, while retaining the sharpness of detail of the subject that comes from full-flash illumination. The blue sky background provides a more pleasing contrast with the colors of this particular beetle and flowers than the black background that is more typically seen with full-flash macrophotography.


From  (19 Dec). An uncommon underside view of these purple tree fungus (Trichaptum biforme) caps and use of flash illumination allows the colors to literally glow against the bright green lichens also growing on the tree. Keeping aperture at a moderate setting allows blurring of the caps further back, adding three-dimensionality to the photo and preventing it from looking ‘flat.’


Well, there you have it, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my selections. Please do tell me if you have a favorite among theses (and if there were other photos posted during 2011 that you think deserved making the final selections).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011