2018 New Mexico/Texas Insect Collecting Trip “iReport”

This is the fifth in a series of Collecting Trip “iReports”—so named because I’ve illustrated them exclusively with iPhone photographs (see previous articles for 2013 Oklahoma2013 Great Basin, 2014 Great Plains, and 2015 Texas). Note that I continue to use my “big” camera for specific insect targets—and these will be featured from time to time on this site. However, I use my iPhone camera much more during these trips for general photography to document habitats, landscapes, and miscellaneous subjects because it is so small and handy and because it is also capable of capturing reasonably good photographs (see this post for tips on making the most of the iPhone camera’s capabilities). This allows me to spend more time looking for and collecting insects—usually my primary objective on these trips! Collectively, these iPhone photos and the short narratives accompanying them form a nice trip synopsis when assembled into a single post.

This report covers a collecting trip I made with Jeff Huether from June 2–9, 2018 to southeastern New Mexico and west Texas. I’ve dabbled in this area before, primarily just a quick stop at Mescalero Sand Dunes many years ago, but not specifically targeted this area for any systematic collecting. Thus, most of the locations that we visited were new to me, which automatically means that I would find at least a few things of interest—and more probably a lot (as long as the insects are active). We had great success at many localities, having found areas where sufficient rain had occurred to trigger insect emergence despite the drought that was plaguing much of the area. Highlights were the areas along Hwy 380 between San Antonio and Bingham, the Mescalero Sand Dunes, and the dunes near Kermit, Texas. I haven’t yet tallied the number of species collected, as much of the material is still waiting to be mounted and identified. However, I estimate that it is in the neighborhood of about three dozen buprestids and maybe half that many cerambycids, including some quite charismatic species that I’d not collected previously (e.g., Prionus arenarius and Tragidion armatum).

Stay tuned, because I made a second insect collecting trip during 2018, this one with Art Evans to southeast Arizona during late July and early August.


Day 1 – Sandia Mountains, New Mexico
We flew into Albuquerque this afternoon and, after getting the car, supplies, and something to eat we came up to Sandia Crest Recreation Area looking for Cicindela longilabris (long-lipped tiger beetle). This was the first place I stopped on the first day of the trip for the first species I wanted to look for, and I found it in the first five minutes I was here!

View from near the summit of Sandia Mountain.

We stopped at the Capulin Picnic Ground on the way down the mountain. There were some oaks with fresh-looking foliage that I beat – no Buprestidae but a nice series of a treehopper (Telamonthe?) and a few odds and ends. There was also Robinia off which I beat a series of what is surely Agrilus egenus.

Penstemon sp. ID by George Yatskievych.

Day 2 – Walking Sands Rest Area, New Mexico
Quick stop to check the lights – later in the season Jeff has collected Prionus palparis here, but this time we saw nothing. Also checked the nearby vegetation, there was Dalea in bloom but no beetles on the flowers.

Hwy 380 between San Antonio & Bingham, New Mexico
We saw a few things in bloom at the Rio Grande bridge crossing so decided to stop. I took a fair series of what must be Acmaeodera mixta off of the Thelesperma flowers (along with a few mordellids for Enrico and one meloid for Jeff). Otherwise not much activity at the spot.

Bone dry Rio Grande!

There were some cool looking red sand dunes on Hwy 380 east of San Antonio, so we stopped to see if there might be any tiger beetles. There weren’t any, but I found yucca stems infested with cerambycid larvae, likely Tragidion. I collected 6–8 stems to bring back and try to rear out the adults. Jeff also found a single Chrysobothris sp. on sage, otherwise we saw few beetles.

Going east on Hwy 380 we went into an area of higher elevation with junipers. We stopped to check the Thelosperma flowers, but there were no bups on them. I collected a few noisy cicadas and some Acmaeodera quadrivittatoides on Opuntia flowers. I then started beating the junipers, however, and got a fair series of a small green Gyascutus plus two tiny Chrysobothris. They were extremely difficult to collect – winds were very stiff and the beetles were very active. I probably lost as many as I collected. To finish off I found a mating pair of Moneilema sp. on cholla.

Acmaeodera quadrivittatoides in a flower of Opuntia sp.

Yours truly standing next to a cholla (Opuntia imbricata).

In addition the the Tragidion larvae that I collected two stops back, Jeff saw one adult at the previous stop. So, when we saw thick stands of yucca along the roadsides just a few miles down the road we stopped to take a look. They were out and not uncommon on the flower stalks and down in the basal rosettes. I collected about a dozen of them and also another Gyascutus.

A Tragidion female on a yucca flower stalk.
Tragidion sp. mating pair on yucca flower stalk.

Tarantula hawk (family Pompilidae) on yucca flower stalk. This must be a mimicry model for Tragidion.

I believe this is a cactus dodger cicada (Cacama sp.).

At the last stop we noticed a lot of emergency vehicles rushing to the east. Just a couple of miles down the road we ran into an accident blockade. Since we were stopped I was tempted to look at the rock shop, but then I started looking at the cholla and found several Moneilema sp. adults on the plants.

Walking Sands Rest Area, New Mexico
We came back up to the rest stop because of the dunes – there are Prionus spp. that live in the dunes, so we put out some pheromone to see if we could attract the males which fly at dusk and early nighttime. In the meantime we walked around looking for nocturnally active beetles – found a few skin beetles (Omorgus sp.) feeding in dried dog poop and a huge tenebrionid (Eleodes sp.) strangely perched up in a bush. Also photographed a cool little sun spider (Solifugida). When we went back to check the pheromone there was one male Prionus arenarius running around under the lure!

Skin beetle (Omorgus nodosus) feeding on dried dog poop at night. ID by Bill Warner.

A sun spider (Solifugida) pauses briefly from its frantic search for prey.

Day 3 – Valley of Fire National Recreation Area, New Mexico
We came over the hill and saw a huge black area in the valley below. I thought it was just an area of thick woody vegetation, but it was actually a lava field! Very cool. There were tons of cicadas, I think also cactus dodgers (Cacama spp.) but look different from the one we saw yesterday. I beat a lot of Celtis and only got one Chrysobothris sp. (looks like analis), and there was nothing on the junipers. We also didn’t see any Moneilema on the abundant cholla. I did catch two Acmaeodera mixta on an unidentified white flower. I think yesterday’s rains must have missed this area!

Malpais Lava Beds.

A tarantula hawk (family Pompilidae) on flowers of milkweed (Asclepias sp.).

I believe this is another species of cactus dodger cicada (Cacama sp.).

Malpais Lava Beds.

Lead-footed bugs (family Coreidae) on cholla cactus (Opuntia imbricata).

Malpais Lava Beds.
Cactus dodger cicada (Cacama sp.)?
Male cactus dodger (Cacama sp.) on cholla cactus in mid-song.

We drove a couple miles down the road and made just a quick stop to check flowers along the roadsides. No beetles seen – seems to be super dry, but I did photograph one of the tiniest butterflies (something in the family Lycaenidae) I’ve ever seen.

Western pygmy blue (Brephidium exilis). ID by Doug Taron.

Sierra Blanca Mountains, New Mexico
Jeff wanted to look for an Epicauta up here, but the whole drive up the mountain we could only comment on how dry it was and how extensively the area had burned. I only found two wood borers – an Anthaxia (Melanthaxia) and a lepturine cerambycid, both on iris flowers. We did find the Epicauta though, also on iris flowers.

Atop the Sierra Blanca.

Perhaps Erysimum capitatum (Brassicaceae). ID suggested by Erik Emanuelsson.

Flower longhorn (subfamily Lepturinae) on flower of iris.

Vicinity Sunset, New Mexico
There were some mallow in bloom along the roadsides, so we stopped to see if there were any Acmaeodera on them. There weren’t, just a few meloids that Jeff was interested in. I found a a single Euphoria kerni on a flower of Acacia greggii and, of course, large numbers of them on thistle flowers. The area seems to have gotten some rain, but not much activity to speak of yet.

Euphoria kernii in their typical “buried-butt-upwards” post on a thistle flowerhead.

Mescalero Sand Dunes, New Mexico
This area got rain last night, so we suspected there would be a lot of insect activity, and we were right! The place was alive when we got here at ~6 pm. I walked the area while we waited for dusk to set out pheromone. I collected a series of Enoclerus zonatus off of yucca blooms, beat an Actenodes sp. (something new for me), a Chrysobothris octocola, and a nice series of treehoppers off of mesquite, and found three Batyle suturalis ssp. on an unidentified yellow comp.

Mescalero Sands Recreation Area.

A skin beetle (Omorgus nodosus) makes tracks in the sand.

Enoclerus zonatus on yucca.

Another Enoclerus zonatus individual on yucca. Note the larger spots on this one compared to the other, an example of intraspecific variation.

As the sun began to sink lower in the sky, I hiked around to the backside of the dunes and then bushwhacked across them to get the perfect perspective for photographs when the sun hit the horizon – spectacular sunset!

Sunset on the dune.

What a sunset!

I’m happier than I look! 

By the time I got back to the car, Jeff had already placed three lures out, so we started making the rounds and found at least one or two Prionus arenarius males running frantically in circles under each one. At the second lure, I started searching the area nearby and found a female walking on the ground! (Females are very rarely encountered, and it seems a little more than coincidental to me that for each species of Prionus, whenever we have collected good numbers of males with lures we have also found at least one or a few females in the same area – maybe cheaters [in the ecological sense]?).

As we made the rounds we picked up an amazing diversity of tenebrionids and a few carabids walking in the sand, and we finished off by picking up Jeff’s light trap, which had attracted one more Prionus male and a very light-colored Polyphylla sp. male.

Incredible huge blue spider on the dune at night.

Day 4—Mescalero Sand Dunes, New Mexico

We noticed a stand of soapberry (Sapindus drumondii) along the sides of the road just west of the entrance to Mescalero Sands Recreation Area last night, and I immediately thought of Agrilus sapindi, so this morning on our our way to the dunes we stopped by. I started beating the flowering branches of the larger soapberry trees but wasn’t really getting anything. Then I noticed an A. sapindi flying to a low non-flowering plant, so I caught it and resumed beating – now with more gusto knowing they were here. I still wasn’t getting anything and, again, saw another adult fly and land on a low non-flowering plant. Lesson learned – I started sweeping the low plants and started getting them. I worked all five stands in the area and got about 3 dozen adults, plus a few A. ornatulus, one A. limpiae, and spectacular Neoclytus.

After finishing with the soapberry, Jeff had noticed some tiny Acmaeodera on an unidentified white-flowered composite. We started searching in earnest and collected several dozen adults. I’m not sure what they are, but they are tiny and vittate (maybe A. quadrivittatoides). We also did a lot of sweeping of the short shrubby oak also and came up with a couple of Brachys. Overall a great morning/early afternoon in the field!

The only thing cooler than this abandoned homestead was the squawking ravens hanging out on it!

Soapberry (Sapindus drummondii) stands along Hwy 380 – host for Agrilus sapindi.

Host for unidentified Acmaeodera sp.

We next went into the Recreation Area proper to each lunch, after which we explored the rest of the area accessible by vehicle and saw a stand of cottonwood back in the dunes. We got out to see if there might be any Buprestidae on them (e.g., Poecilonota), but they were devoid of insects. The midday heat on the dunes was extreme! I did find, however, a single Prionus elytron lying on the sand beneath the cottonwoods, so we know they are further back in the dunes as well.

Mescalero Sands Recreation Area.

Mescalero Sands Recreation Area.

We worked the variety of blooming plants in the vicinity of the entrance. I collected ~22 of the small Acmaeodera that were on the white-flowered plant at the soapberry spot on two blossoms of a single yellow-flowered pad Opuntia sp., a couple of Acmaeodera spp. on Gaillardia sp. flowers, a few more Acmaeodera spp. on Prosopis, and several Acmaeodera mixta on another as-yet-unidentified white flower. It was hotter than bejesus we later learned 103°F!) – I had wanted to check out one more stand of soapberry at the entrance, but we were exhausted and dehydrated and had to quit!

Some kind of wasp on some kind of flower.

There are four separate bird nests in the cholla plant – a veritable avian apartment!

Cholla (Opuntia imbricata) blossom.

Vicinity Hobbs, New Mexico
We got a hotel in Hobbs and grabbed a sandwich for dinner, then went out west of town to see if we could find some good habitat for evening collecting. We found a spot of open rangeland about 8–9 miles west of town, set out the pheromone lures, and began beating the mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa). We had high hopes because there was still standing water, meaning that the area had gotten good rains on Sunday night. Boy were we correct! Beating the mesquite was amazing. For buprestids I got 10 individuals of an Actenodes sp., 4 individuals of a Paratyndaris sp., 4 Chrysobothris spp., 4 Acmaeodera spp., and 1 Agrilus sp. I also got several tiny cicadas, a couple treehopper species, and a few clerids and other odds and ends. We setup a blacklight and the scarabs were quite diverse, but the only thing I took was a tiger beetle (Cylindera lemniscata). I also picked up a Phyllophaga cribrosa and a tenebrionid walking on the ground at night. No Prionus came to the lures, any my searches of the ground at night turned up no Amblycheila.

Tiny scarab beetles in the genus Diplotaxis congregate on low plants to “catch” pheromone trails in search of mates.

Giant millipedes (genus Orthoporus) were common at night, a sure sign of recent rains. ID by Derek Hennen.

Ted of Arabia and Jeff.

Day 5—Sand Dunes near Kermit, Texas
We stopped just outside the Kermit Sand Dunes to beat the mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) to see what might be out. I collected 8 species of Buprestidae: nice series of an Acmaeoderopsis (hoping A. prosopis), 1 sp. Actenodes, 2 spp. Chrysobothris, 1 sp. Paratyndaris, 1 sp. Agrilus, and 2 Acmaeodera spp. We eventually gave up – the heat had not only wilted us, but the Acmaeoderopsis were flying away immediately upon hitting the sheet.

Updated field pic (the last one was taken in 1999!).

We drove a little further towards the heart of the dunes and found a spot where there were some blowouts and classic sand flora. Immediately upon starting out we noticed Acmaeodera mixta adults flying around commonly, so I swept through the vegetation a bit and collected a representative series. On Oenethera sp. flowers I found a single A. immaculata and later several A. mixta and a very small Acmaeodera (looked like the one we collected yesterday at Mescalero). In one spot I found a few plants of an unidentified yellow composite with a few more A. mixta, and on Baccharis I found one A. obtusa(?) along with A. mixta. Coming back to the car Jeff and I noticed huge numbers of A. immaculata flying to an unidentified shrub, from which we each swept a nice series. Eventually the heat (103°F) again overwhelmed us, and we had to get in the car, eat, and cool down for a bit on the way to another spot.

The dunes are part of an extensive series of dunes stretching from West Texas through southeastern New Mexico.

Acmaeodera mixta on flower of an unidentified yellow composite.

We returned to an area with stands of soapberry (Sapindus drummondii) that we had seen when we first arrived in the area. I swept all of the small plants on the east side of the highway and got a single Agrilus sapindi – not nearly as abundant as we had seen at Mescalero Sands.

On the west side of the highway there were some larger mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa). I found one Chrysobothris octocola on the trunk, then Jeff and I noticed Acmaeoderopsis flying to the tips of the high branches. I got my aerial net and just started betting them as they flew in while we stood and watched. I caught them from several trees, but a majority from a single tree. That worked much better than beating this morning – I probably lost as many as I collected because they flew so quickly upon hitting the sheet.

Underneath one large mesquite I found several prionid elytra – couldn’t tell if they were Prionus or Derobrachus, but then I noticed burrows in the ground very similar to those we saw for Prionus integer in Colorado (see photo). We dug a few out but found nothing. Something to keep in mind.

The high plains of west Texas.

Burrows like this one look suspiciously like those of Prionus integer in Colorado – did another Prionus make this one?

We returned to the dunes for some evening collecting. I beat the two large mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) trees by the parking area and got an Actenodes and a few Chrysobothris octocola – no Acmaeoderopsis, I guess they hide elsewhere for the night. Once dusk fell we began checking the pheromones and light – only a single male Prionus arenarius came to the pheromone, but we got several individuals of two Polyphylla spp. (P. monahansensis – larger, and P. pottsorum – smaller) at the light. Walking around the dunes at night there were significantly fewer tenebrionids and other insects walking around, but I did pick up two cool “concave” tenebs and a Pasimachus ground beetle.

I’ve never seen a mourning dove make a nest in the ground before.
I always thought these oil pumps looked like dinosaurs bobbing up and down.

Bull nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus)—something tells me I should not touch this plant!

A very small (<1.5” in length) scorpion visits the light looking for a meal.

Face-to-face with a scorpion!

Day 6—I-10 Rest Area at mile marker 162, Texas
Just a quick stop to use the facilities, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to photograph these three Reakirts blues all on one flower (a fourth flew away before I could snap).

Reakirts blue (Echinargus isola). ID by Doug Taron.

San Felipe Park, near Fabens, Texas
We took a chance on going further west to the dunes near Fabens, since we’ve had such good luck with rains in the area. However, when we got here and started looking around it was apparent that nothing was happening here – dry, dry, dry with temps just over 100°F. I saw a few insects but only a single buprestid – Acmaeodera quadrivittatoides, and I missed it! We decided to cut bait and head back east and north towards Carlsbad – we should be able to get to the area in time for some late afternoon and evening collecting. You can’t win ‘em all!

This roadrunner was rather annoyed with us for intruding in his spot of shade under a Siberian elm.

A broad-nosed weevil.

A mating pair of walkingsticks. Note the great size difference between the male (smaller) and female (larger).

I think I found our retirement home!

Vicinity Carlsbad, New Mexico
After getting lost in the Fabens Sand Dunes and then a whole lot of driving back east into New Mexico, we arrived in Carlsbad with just enough time to grab a sandwich and head out to some promising habitat we’d noticed on the way in for some evening/night collecting.

The area contained a ribbon of woodland with mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), black acacia (Acacia rigida), and catclaw acacia (A. greggii). I beat only one tiny Chrysobothris sp. off the mesquite, but off the black acacia I beat three individuals (four actually, one got away) of a large, chunky Chrysobothris sp. that I do not recognize, plus an undetermined cerambycid and a few clytrines. Actually, before I collected the Chrysobothris I had given up on the lack acacia until I was walking by one plant and saw the first one sitting on a branch. I popped it in the vial and started beating the other plants in the area with renewed enthusiasm the find the other two (three!).

We setup the lights and the pheromones, but not much came to the former and nothing to the latter (expected, since there was no sand habitat nearby). The sunset beforehand, however, was magnificent, and I did find a couple of miscellaneous beetles walking around at night.


Day 7—vicinity Loco Hills, New Mexico
We saw an area with stands of soapberry (Sapindus drummondii) alongside the road so stopped to sample it for Buprestidae. I got 3 Agrilus limpiae on trees right around the car but nothing on all the rest of the three stands nearest the car on either side of the road. I hope the south area of Mescalero Sands is not as dry as it still appears around here.

Soapberry (Sapindus drummondii).

Mescalero Sand Dunes, New Mexico
We found the central dunes of the southern area and immediately found several Acmaeodera mixta adults on mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) flowers. I started beating the mesquite and picked up a nice series of Acmaeoderopsis, one Actenodes, and a few other miscellaneous Acmaeodera off the larger trees. There was some soapberry (Sapindus drummondii) in bloom around the dunes, but beating it produced no Buprestidae.

A lone windswept soapberry tree hangs on precariously to life in the dunes.

Acmaeodera mixta on flowers of mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa).

We stopped at a spot outside the dunes because it looked pretty green with a number of plants in bloom suggesting recent rain. I saw but did not take Acmaeodera mixta on white flowers of undetermined composite. I did collect a small series of bright red and black clerids on a small blue-green euphorbiaceous plant. Also saw a little horned lizard, who cooperated just enough to get a few snaps!

A young Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) tries to make himself look big!

White-flowered composite blooming in the desert.

Vicinity Carrizozo, New Mexico
We stopped at a thick stand of yucca that we’d noted on the way past here earlier in the week, the hope being that we would find Tragidion armatum on the stems. Sadly we did not see any, nor did we see more than just a couple of the pompilid wasps that the beetles mimic. Surely this is a result of the lack of rain in the area, which the hotel clerk confirmed during our earlier check in. Cicadas, on the other hand, were everywhere!

The low sun illuminates the yuccas, while the higher clouds shade the mountains behind.

The low sun illuminates the yuccas, while the higher clouds shade the mountains behind.

How many cicadas do you see on this single yucca stem?

Promising clouds tease a thirsty landscape.

For the final stop for the day we returned to Valley of Fire Recreation Area – not really to collect insects, but to look about this fascinating landscape. The Lava Beds are thought to be 5,000 years old, having formed over a 30-year period when lava poured from Black Peak to the north (not a volcano, but a volcanic vent) at a rate that would fill 15 bathtubs every second! It was a serene and otherworldly walk in the falling darkness – nice way to cap off an evening.

Towering clouds try to squeeze out some moisture.

Lots of virga, little rain.

A 400-year old juniper watches another sunset.

Day 8—vicinity Bingham, New Mexico and west on Hwy 380
We stopped at another yucca stand very near where we’d found the Tragidion armatum last weekend – no problem finding them here either. I got plenty of photographs of the beetles (despite having to go ‘au natural’ with the lighting – my flash unit had died!), as well as of cicadas, wasps, and other insects on the yucca stems and pods. Otherwise I only collected two Acmaeodera (looks like A. immaculata) on flowers of Sphaeralcea sp., what looks to be A. disjuncta/paradisjuncta on Ephedra sp., and a single Moneilema sp. on Opuntia imbricata. Nice stop!

Variety of wasps on yucca.

We then stopped by “the juniper spot” again to see if I could get a better series of the Gyascutus (G. carolinensis?) that we found on the junipers (Juniperus monosperma). Boy, did I ever! I collected about 30 specimens this time, made easier by the fact that it was cooler and not nearly as windy! I also again collected two small Chrysobothris sp. on the juniper, a single Moneilema sp. on cholla (Opuntia imbricata), and a single Acmaeoderopsis sp. beating mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa).

One of the more exciting finds of the trip – a jewel beetle in the genus Gyascutus on Juniperus monosperma (I believe this is G. carolinensis).
The greenish waxy bloom that covers the body must help the beetle blend into the foliage on which they perch.

A cactus beetle in the genus Moneilema on its host, cholla (Opuntia imbricata).

A multi-tool comes in very handy for collecting cactus beetles!

We stopped at another spot further west on Hwy 380, where last weekend when we were here we saw few beetles but I did collect yucca stems infested with Tragidion armatum larvae. It rained here later that day, so we stopped by again on our way back to see if the rains had prompted more insect activity. It didn’t seem to, but I did find a Tragidion armatum adult feeding on a yucca flower and photographed a big-as-heck katydid.

Tragidion armatum adult female feeding on a yucca flower.

Big katydid. You can tell this is a brachypterous adult because the anterior wings are on top and their costal margins oriented outside (in nymphs the posterior wings are on top and their costal margins oriented inside).

Perfect camouflage!

“The Box”, vicinity Socorro, New Mexico
Last stop of the trip – we just wanted to find some habitat to beat around in before finding a hotel in Socorro for the night. I beat a couple of small Chrysobothris sp. from the Juniperus monosperma – no Gyascutus – and a couple of treehoppers from Prosopis glandulosa – no Acmaeoderopsis, then turned my attention to the cholla (Opuntia imbricata), in what must have been the thickest stand of this plant I’ve ever seen. There were two species of cactus beetles on them – Moneilema sp. and Coenopoeus palmeri, the latter a first for the trip. After hiking up to the canyon overlook, I realized that the collecting and fun were finally over (until Arizona in August!).

“The Box.”

Cactus beetle (Moneilema sp,) on a cholla (Opuntia imbricata) skeleton.

The “other” cactus beetle (Coenopoeus palmeri).

How many cactus beetles can you count?

Last selfie of the trip. That wry smile is the satisfaction of knowing that the trip was success, I collected lots of great beetles, and I learned a ton!

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

“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

Summer Insect Collecting iRecap

At the beginning of the season I was planning to spend the first week of June collecting insects in southeastern New Mexico. Family issues intervened, however, and left me with a week of vacation time and no plans on how to use it. I’ve never been one to not use vacation time, so I quickly came up with a backup plan—a Friday here and a Monday there to create several 3–4 day weekends. Long weekends may not allow travel to far off and exotic places, but they do allow me to travel a bit further than I would for a regular weekend. I also took advantage of my frequent travel for work to stop off at favorite collecting sites for an evening of blacklighting (much more fun than sitting in a hotel room) or a half-day in the field before getting back home. I always have my big camera with me for serious insect photography when the opportunity arises, but I also take frequent iPhone snapshots to document the “flavor” of my time in the field. In previous years, I’ve collected snapshots from my extended trips into “iReports”, which were later followed by posts featuring subjects that I spent “quality camera time” with (see 2013 western Oklahoma, 2013 Great Basin, and 2014 Great Plains). I’ve decided to do the same thing now, only instead of a single trip this report covers an entire summer. I realize few people have the patience for long-reads; nevertheless, enough readers have told me that they like my trip reports and all of their gory details to make this a worthwhile exercise. If you’re not among them, scan the photos—all of which were taken with a stock iPhone 5S and processed using Photoshop Elements version 11—and you’re done!


Searching for the Ghost Tiger Beetle
Central/Northwest Missouri (12–14 June 2015)

In mid-June my good friend, colleague, and fellow cicindelophile Chris Brown and I followed the Missouri River Valley across the state and and up along its northwestern border to visit previously known and potentially new sites for Ellipsoptera lepida—the Ghost Tiger Beetle. We first saw this lovely white species back in 2000 while visiting some of the large sand deposits laid down in central and east-central Missouri by the 1993 flood. In the years since these sites have become increasingly encroached by forests of eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), making them less and less suitable for the beetle (it also remains one of only two tiger beetles known to occur in Missouri that I have not yet photographed). In the meantime several new sand deposits have been laid down in northwestern Missouri by flooding in 2011, so the question has come up whether the beetle has yet occupied these new sites. We started out at a couple of potentially new sites in east-central Missouri (and did not find the beetle), then went to one of two known sites in central Missouri. We did not find the beetle there either, but we did find this eastern hognose snake  (Heterodon platirhinos).

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) | vic. Eagle Rock Conservation Area, Boone Co.

Hognose snakes are well known for their vaired repertoire of defensive behaviors—from flattening of the head and hissing to rolling over and playing dead (a behavior called thanatosis)—the latter behavior often accompanied by bleeding from the mouth and even defecating onto itself. This one, however, was content to simply flatten its head and hiss, its tongue constantly flickering.

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

The flattened head is an attempt by the snake to make itself appear larger and more imposing.

Standing its ground as tenaciously as it did, I took advantage of the opportunity to close in tight and take a burst series of photos, which I used to create this animated gif of the snake’s constantly flickering tongue.

Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

After an evening of driving to northwest Missouri and a stay in one of our favorite local hotels (eh hem…), we awoke to find the scene below at our first destination.

Ted MacRae & Chris Brown look out over a flooded wildlife refuge

Ted MacRae & Chris Brown look out over a flooded Thurnau Conservation Area, Holt Co.

No tiger beetles there! What to do now. One thing I love about modern times is the ability to pull out the smart phone and scan satellite images of the nearby landscape. Doing this we were able to locate a large sand deposit just to the south and navigate local, often unmarked roads to eventually wind up at a spot where we could access the area on foot. But before we did this we needed gas, and the only gas station for miles was a Sinclair station with a bona fide, original green dinosaur—one of the most potent and iconic corporate symbols ever! I remember these from my childhood, but this is the first one I’ve seen in years.

Authentic Sinclair dinosaur

An authentic Sinclair dinosaur guards the only gas station for miles.

Rain the night before had made the roads muddy, and it was only with some difficulty that we finally located a way to access the sand deposits we had seen on the satellite images. Even then we needed to hike a half-mile to access the sand plain, but once we got there this is what we saw:

Sand plain deposited 2009

Sand plain deposited 2011 along Missouri River, Thurnau Conservation Area, Holt Co.

At first we were optimistic—the habitat looked perfect for not only E. lepida but also the more commonly seen Cicindela formosa generosa (Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle) and, at least in this area, C. scutellaris lecontei (LeConte’s Tiger Beetle). We saw no adults however, as we searched the plain, and we wondered if the cool, cloudy conditions that lingered from the previous evening’s storms were suppressing adult activity. After awhile, however, we noted that we hadn’t even found evidence of larval burrows, and that is when we began to think that maybe four years wasn’t long enough for populations to establish in such a vast expanse of new habitat. Eventually Chris did find a single E. lepida adult—a nice record but certainly not evidence of a healthy population.

Sand plain deposited 2009

Seemingly perfect habitat, but void of active adults or evidence of larval burrows.

The next sand plain we visited was a little further north at Corning Conservation Area, also in Holt Co. and also laid down by the 2011 flood. Once again we saw no active tiger beetles in the area, and by this point we were convinced that the species were not just inactive but had not yet even colonized the plains. It should be noted that large sand expanses such as these actually are not exactly a natural process, but rather the result of river channeling and the use of levees to protect adjacent farmland. Before such existed, the river existed as an intricate system of braided channels that rarely experienced catastrophic flooding. Nowadays, with the river confined to a single, narrow channel, the river valley doesn’t experience a normal ebb and flow of water. Only when water levels reach such extreme levels in the narrow channel that they breach a levee does the adjacent valley flood, with the area immediately downstream from the levee breach receiving huge amounts of sand and mud scoured from the breach zone. Tiger beetle species adapted to ephemeral sand plain habitats along big rivers probably

Sand plain deposited 2009

Another sand plain deposited in 2011 at Corning Conservation Area, Holt. Co.

Cottonwoods and willows were already colonizing the edge of the plain, and the latter were heavily infested by large blue leaf beetles. As far as I know the only species of Altica in Missouri associated with willow is A. subplicata, although admittedly it is a large, diverse genus and there could be other willow-associates within the state that I am unaware of. The beetles seemed especially fond of the smaller plants (1–3′ in height), while taller plants were relatively untouched.

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Altica subplicata? (willow flea beetle) | Holt Co., Missouri

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Beetles congregated heavily on smaller willow plants.

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Despite the heavy adult feeding we could find no larvae on the foliage.

Few other insects were seen. I did see a large, standing, dead cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and checked it out hoping hoping to find a Buprestis confluenta adult or two on its naked trunk (a species I found for the first time last year and still have yet to find in Missouri, although it is known from the state). No such luck, but I did collect a couple of large mordellids off of the tree. Let me say also that there were some interesting other plants in the area…

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

After satisfying ourselves that Corning also was not yet colonized by the tiger beetles, we drove further north into Atchison Co., the northwesternmost county in the state, to check out one more sand plain deposited by the 2011 flood at Nishnabotna Conservation Area. The sand plain at this area was much smaller than the two previous plains we had visited, and it was also far less accessible, requiring a bushwhacking hike through thick vegetation that was quite rank in some areas. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, motivated by the hope that maybe the third time would be a charm and we would find the beetles that we were searching for. The hike was not all bad—eagles were abundant in the area, and in one distant tree we could see a female perched near her nest with two large nestlings sitting in it. The passing storm system and sinking sun combined to create a rainbow that arched gracefully over the tree with the nest, resulting in one of the more memorable visions from the trip.

Rainbow over eagle's nest

Rainbow over eagle’s nest (tree is located at left one-third of photo).

By the time we got close enough to get a better photograph of the nest the female had departed, but the two nestlings could still be seen sitting in the nest. Sadly, the rather great effort we made to hike to the sand plain was not rewarded with any tiger beetles, and in fact the sand plain was little more than a narrow, already highly vegetated ridge that will probably be completely encroached before the tiger beetles ever find it.

Eagles in nest

Eagles in nest

Ellipsoptera lepida was not the only tiger beetle we were hoping to see on the trip. The Sandy Stream Tiger Beetle, E. macra, has also been recorded from this part of the state, and being members of the genus Ellipsoptera both species can be attracted to lights at night. In one last effort to see either of these species, we went to Watson Access on the Nishnabotna River, near its confluence with the Missouri River. Thunder clouds retreating to the east were illuminated by the low hanging sun to the west, creating spectacular views in both directions. Unfortunately, the insect collecting at the blacklights after sunset was not near as interesting as the sky views that preceded it.

Sunset lit thunderclouds

Sunset lit thunderclouds to the east…

Sunset on the Nishnabotna River

… and a bright colored sunset to the west on the Nishnabotna River, Atchison Co.

The next day we had to start making our way back to St. Louis. But while we were in the area we decided to check on the status of one of Missouri’s rarest tiger beetlesParvindela celeripes (formerly Cylindera celeripes)—the Swift Tiger Beetle. Not known to occur in Missouri until 2010, this tiny, flightless species is apparently restricted in the state to just three small remnants of loess hilltop prairie in Atchison and Holt Counties. We were close to one of these—Brickyard Hill Conservation Area (where Chris and I first discovered the beetles) so stopped by to see if adults were active and how abundant they were. To our great surprise, we found adults active almost immediately upon entering the site, and even more pleasantly surprising the adults were found not just in the two small areas of the remnant where we had seen them before but also in the altered pasture (planted with brome for forage) on the hillside below the remnant (foreground in photo below). This was significant in our minds, as it was the very first time we have observed this beetle in substantially altered habitat. The beetle was observed in relatively good numbers as well, bolstering our hopes that the beetles were capabale of persisting in these small areas and possibly utilized altered pastureland adjacent to the remnants.

Loess hilltop prairie

Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, loess hilltop prairie habitat for Parvindela celeripes

As we made our way back towards St. Louis, there was one more site created by the 1993 flood where we observed E. lepida in the early 2000s that we wanted to check out and see how the beetle was doing. In the years since we first came to Overton Bottoms, much of its perimeter has converted to cottonwood forest; however, a large central plain with open sand exposures and bunch grasses persists—presumably providing acceptable habitat for the species. Chris had seen a few beetles here in a brief visit last summer, but this time we saw no beetles despite a rather thorough search of the central plain. It seemed untenable to think that the beetles were no longer present, and we eventually decided (hoped) that the season was still too young (E. lepida is a summer species, and the season, to this point, had been rather cool and wet). The photos below show what the central plain looks like—both from the human (first photo) and the beetle (second photo) perspective. I resolved to return later in the month to see if our hunch was correct.

Sand plain (people view)

Big Muddy NFWR, Overton Bottoms, south unit, sand plain habitat for Ellipsoptera lepida

Sand plain (tiger beetle view)

A tiger beetle’s eye view of its sand plain habitat

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then I get caught by rain while out in the field, and this time we got caught by a rather ominous thunderstorm. The rain didn’t really become too heavy until shortly before we reached the car, but the lightning was a constant concern that made bushwhacking back more than a mile through thick brush one of the more unnerving experiences that I’ve had to date.


Trying for Prionus—part 1
South-central Kansas (26–29 June 2015)

Last summer Jeff Huether and I traveled to several locations in eastern Colorado and New Mexico and western Oklahoma to find several Great Plains species of longhorned beetles in the genus Prionus using recently developed lures impregnated with prionic acid—a principal sex pheromone component for the genus. These lures are extraordinarily attractive to males of all species in the genus, and on that trip we managed to attract P. integerP. fissicornis, and P. heroicus and progress further in our eventual goal to collect all of the species in the genus for an eventual molecular phylogenetic analysis. One species that remains uncollected by pheromones (or any other method) is P. simplex, known only from the type specimen labeled simply “Ks.” A number of Prionus species in the Great Plains are associated with sand dune habitats, so we had the idea that maybe P. simplex could be found at the dunes near Medora—a popular historical collecting site, especially with the help of prionic acid lures. Perhaps a long shot, but there’s only one way to find out, so we contacted scarab specialist Mary Liz Jameson at Wichita State University, who graciously hosted Jeff, his son Mark Huether, and I for a day in the field at Sand Hills State Park. We didn’t expect Prionus to be active until dusk, during which time we planned to place lure-baited pitfall traps and also setup blacklights as another method for attracting the adult males (females don’t fly). Until then, we occupied ourselves with some day collecting—always interesting in dune habitats because of the unique sand-adapted flora and the often unusual insects associated with them.

"Medora" Dunes

Sand Hills State Park (“Medora Dunes”), Kansas

Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) are a favorite of mine, and I was stunned to see a yellow-flowered form of butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosus). Eventually I would see plants with flowers ranging from yellow to light orange to the more familiar dark orange that I know from southern Missouri. I checked the plants whenever I saw them for the presence of milkweed beetles, longhorned beetles in the genus Tetraopes (in Missouri the diminutive T. quinquemaculatus is most often associated with this plant), but saw none.

Asclepias tuberosus "yellow form"

Asclepias tuberosus “yellow form”

In the drier areas of the dunes, however, we began to see another milkweed that I recognized as sand milkweed (A. arenicola). I mentioned to Jeff and Mary Liz that a much rarer species of milkweed beetle, T. pilosus, was associated with this plant and to be on the lookout for it (I had found a single adult on this plant at a dune in western Oklahoma a few years back). Both the beetle and the plant are restricted to the Quaternary sandhills of the midwestern U.S., and within minutes of me telling them to be on the alert we found the first adult! During the course of the afternoon we found the species to be quite common in the area, always in association with A. arenicola, and I was happy to finally have a nice series of these beetles for my collection.

Tetraopes pilosus

Two Sandhills specialties—Tetraopes pilosus on Asclepias arenaria

Milkweed beetles weren’t the only insects associated with sand milkweed in the area—on several plants we saw Monarch butterfly larvae, some nearing completion of the larval stage as the one shown in the photo below. Monarchs have been in the news quite a bit lately as their overwintering populations show declines in recent years for reasons that are not fully understood but may be related to recent droughts diminishing availability of nectaring plants for migrating adults and reduction of available food plants as agricultural lands in the U.S. become increasingly efficient.

Danaus plexippus larva

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larva on Asclepias arenaria

We found some other interesting insects such as the spectacular Plectrodera scalator, cottonwood borer, and the southern Great Plains specialty scarab, Strigoderma knausi, both of which I took the time to photograph with the big camera—separate posts on those species will appear in the future. Sadly, no Prionus came to either our lures or our lights that evening, but some interesting other insects were seen during the day and even at the lights despite unseasonably cool temperatures and a bright moon. I’ll post photographs of these insects, taken with the “big” camera, in the coming weeks. In the meantime, my thanks to Mary Liz for hosting us—I look forward to our next chance to spend some time in the field together.

Ted MacRae, Mark Huether, Jeff Huether, Mary Liz Jameson

Ted MacRae shows Mark Huether, Jeff Huether, and Mary Liz Jameson how to take a panoramic selfie.

The following day, Adam James Hefel—at the time a graduate student at Wichita State University—and I traveled northwest of Wichita to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Adam has recently become interested in tiger beetles and had observed several interesting species on the margins of the salt marshes at Quivira. Several of these species were on my “still to photograph” list (and one even on my “still to see” list), so I was happy to have access to some local knowledge to help me

Salt marsh

Quivira NWR – salt marsh habitat for halophilic tiger beetles

The saline flats of the central U.S. are hyperdiverse for tiger beetles. Adam has seen six species in the saling flats of Quivira, including the saline specialists Cicindela fulgida, C. wllistoni, Ellipsoptera nevadica knausi, Eunota togata, and E. circumpicta johnsonii (formerly Habroscelimorpha) (both red and green forms) and the ubiquitous Cicindelidia punctulata. We managed to find all of these except C. willistoni, which is a spring/fall species—unusual for a saline specialist, but the extreme heat of the day made them exceedingly difficult to approach (and virtually impossible to photograph).

Salt marsh

Tiger beetles are found most often in alkaline flats with sparse vegetation

Salt marsh

The wide open central flats are devoid of not only vegetation but tiger beetles (and life in general!).

Ever fascinated by the diversity of milkweeds to be found in the central U.S., an unfamiliar Asclepias growing in the higher, drier areas around a salt marsh caught my attention. Of course, I checked them for milkweed beetles and quickly found a number of Tetraopes tetraophthalmus individuals. John Oliver kindly identified the milkweed from my photos as Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed), which does not occur in Missouri (hence the reason I was not familiar with it) but that gets common in the Great Plains and foothills of the Rocky Mountain.

Asclepias speciosa

Asclepias speciosa, or showy milkweed.

Asclepias speciosa

The specific epithet “specioosa” refers to the large, showy flowers.

Tiger beetles were not the only wildlife encountered on the saline flats. Killdeer and western snowy plover adults were abundant in the area, and we found this next with eggs along the lightly vegetated edge of a saline flat around Big Salt Marsh. Cheryl Miller suggested they are probably plover eggs, since killdeer don’t usually scrape out a cup or put debris around the eggs, while snowy plovers are known to nest on or near salt flats and frequently surround their eggs with twigs, small bones or other debris.

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) eggs

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) nest with eggs at the edge of an open flat

During the drive into the refuge, I noted several stands of large cottonwood (Populus deltoides), many of which were half- or completely dead. To some, these trees may be just ugly, half-dead trees. For me, however, they offer an opportunity to look for the gorgeous and rarely encountered Buprestis confluens, a species which I found for the first time just last year (not too far from hear in north-central Oklahoma). After getting our fill of tiger beetles, we drove to a parking lot surrounded by some of these trees, and even before I got out of the car I could see an adult B. confluens sitting on the trunk of a large, dead tree at the edge of the parking lot! I quickly secured the specimen, then spotted the half-dead tree in the photo below and walked towards it to look for more. I did not see any adults sitting on the trunk, but what I did see was truly incredible—two adults just beginning to emerge from the trunk! Waiting for one of the adults to emerge naturally (we “helped” the other one along) and photographing the sequence would occupy the next hour, but what an experience (and, of course, photos to come in a separate post).

Populus deltoides surrounded by hemp

This large, half-dead Populus deltoides “screams” Buprestis confluenta!

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa) fills the are with a pungent aroma.

After a break from the heat and something to eat in the nearest town (20 miles away), I returned to the cottonwoods, broke out the hatchet, and began chopping. Cottonwood is an amazingly soft wood compared to hardwoods such as oak and hickory, but dead cottonwood is still tough, and only after much effort did I manage to chop out two pupae (one of which later successfully emerged as an adult) and two unemerged adults, resulting in a nice, if still rather small, series of a species that until last year was not represented in my collection and until this time by only a single specimen.

Chopping Buprestis confluenta unemerged adults/pupae

Chopping Buprestis confluenta unemerged adults/pupae

Buprestis confluenta pupa

Exposed Buprestis confluenta pupa in its pupal chamber.

With the setting sun illuminating distant thunderclouds, I returned to the salt marshes to setup blacklights for the evening in hopes of attracting some of the tiger beetles that we had seen earlier in the day—not in attempt to collect more specimens, but rather to take advantage of their attraction to the lights and reduced skittishness in the cool, night air in an attempt to photograph them (I already had live specimens for studio photographs if necessary, but I prefer actual field photographs whenever possible). Eunota togata was not attracted to the lights, but both E. nevadica knausi and E. circumpicta johnsonii came to the lights in numbers (both red and green forms of the latter), and I succeeded in getting some real nice photographs as a result.

Thundercloud illuminated by setting sun

Thundercloud illuminated by setting sun

On the way back home, and again with the sun dropping close to the horizon, I stopped by Overton Bottoms again to look for Ellipsoptera lepida. Chris and I hadn’t see it here two weeks ago, and I was thinking (hoping) that it might have still a bit early in the season. This time I found them, and although they were not numerous and were apparently confined to the southernmost exposures of the central sand plain, they were still plentiful enough to allow me to get the field shots that I’ve wanted of this species for so long (and providing fodder for yet another future post). This species never seems to be encountered in great numbers, and although I have seen them on a number of occasions it always amazes me just how difficult they are to see!

Sand plain

Another pass through Overton Bottoms looking for Ellipsoptera lepida, this time with success!


Tryin’ for Prionus—part 2
South-central Kansas (11–12 July 2015)

Although our long-shot effort for Prionus simplex at the dunes near Medora, Kansas didn’t pan out, another species we hoped to see was P. debilis—a rather uncommonly collected species that occurs in the tallgrass prairies of the eastern Great Plains and, to our knowledge, had not yet been demonstrated to be attracted to prionic acid. I’d only seen this species once myself, some 30 years ago when I collected four males at lights near the southwestern edge of Missouri. As it happens, longtime cerambycid collector Dan Heffern grew up in P. debilis-land near Yates Center—not too far from where we were just a few weeks ago. When I mentioned my search for the species, he told me how commonly he used to see it around his home—especially around the 4th of July—and put me in contact with a friend who still lives in the area and has several tallgrass prairie remnants on his land. I made arrangements to visit the following weekend, and with prionic acid impregnated lures in the cooler and blacklights and sheets in the cargo area I set off. As I passed south through eastern Kansas I began to see nice tallgrass prairie remnants about 20 miles from my destination, so I took a chance and set a trap as a backup in case things didn’t pan out near Yates Center.

Trap baited with prionic acid lure

Trap baited with prionic acid lure

Things did pan out, however, although for a long time it did not appear they would. Dan’s friend kept me company while I placed a couple of traps and setup the blacklights, and for a couple of hours after sunset no beetles were seen (although we did enjoy good beer and better conversation). Just when I was ready to throw in the towel I saw a male crawling on the ground near one of the lights, and over the course of the next hour I found nearly a dozen males crawling on the ground in the general area around the lights but never actually at the lights. Interestingly, no males were actually seen in flight, nor were any attracted to the trap placed near one of the lights; however, after I took down the lights and checked the other trap there were five males in it. This likely represents the first demonstration of attraction to prionic acid by males P. debilis. I brought a couple of live males home for photography, taking this iPhone shot of a sleeping beetle in the meantime.

Prionus debilis "sleeping"

Prionus debilis “sleeping”in its cage after being taken near an ultraviolet light

One the way back home the next morning, success already “in the bag”, I stopped to check the trap I had placed the previous day. Filled with anticipation as I approached the trap, I was elated to find 21 males in the trap!

Prionus debilis

Prionus debilis in prionic acid lure-baited trap

The male antennae of this and other Prionus species show numerous adaptations that are all designed to maximize the ability to detect sex pheromones emitted into the air by females. They are both hyper-segmented and flabellate, providing maximum surface area for poriferous areas filled with chemical receptors. Larval habits for this species remain unknown, but Lingafelter (2007) states “Larvae may feed in living roots of primarily Quercus and Castanea, but also Vitis, Pyrus, and Zea mays.” I am not sure of the source of this information and don’t really believe it, either, as I think it much more likely that they feed on roots of bunch grasses such as bluestems (Andropogon spp.) and other grass species common in the tallgrass prairies.

Prionus debilis

Prionus debilis “looking” out over its tallgrass prairie habitat

Before reaching St. Louis, I decided to stop off at the last two known sites for Missouri’s endangered (possibly extirpated), disjunct, all-blue population of Eunota circumpicta johnsonii (Johnson’s Tiger Beetle). This didn’t go well—I first tried Blue Lick Conservation Area in Cooper County, where Chris Brown and I made the last known sighting of this beetle in the state 12 years ago at a salt spring about 500 yards further down the road in the photo below. I’m unsure what adaptations adults and larvae may have for surviving prolonged flooding, but it certainly cannot be helpful for the beetle. I then visited nearby Boone’s Lick State Historic Site in Howard County, and while the site was not flooded the two small areas where salt springs were located during our survey were even more heavily encroached by vegetation than before. Not only were no beetles seen, there did not even seem to be the slightest possibility that beetles could occur there. I keep hoping that the beetle will, someday, be seen again, but in reality I think I am just having trouble accepting the fact that I may have actually witnessed the extirpation of this incredibly beautiful and unusual population of beetles.

Flooded road leading to saline lick tiger beetle habitat

Flooded road leading to last known Missouri site for Eunota circumpicta johnsonii


Chillin’ after work
Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve, central Illinois (15 July 2015)

By the time mid-July rolls along, temperatures are not the only thing heating up. My travel for work also reaches a fever pitch as I begin traveling to research plots in Illinois and Tennessee every  two weeks. It takes three days to make the +1,000-mile round trip, which means that I have two nights and an occasional afternoon stop to collect insects—much more fun than checking into hotel right after work, eating dinner at Applebee’s, and spending the evening switching back and forth between FOX and MSNBC to see who can make the most outrageous statement because IFC just isn’t offered. One of my favorite spots along this route to set up a blacklight is Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve in Mason County, Illinois. Nothing too spectacular showed up at the lights there this season, but as they say a bad day (or night) of bug collecting is better than a good day of just about anything else.

Ted MacRae at the blacklight

Calling all insects—the blacklight awaits you!

On this particular night a number of hawk moths (family Sphingidae) came to the lights, among the prettier of which included this Paonias excaecata (blinded sphinx) (kindly identified by Robert Velten).

Blinded Sphinx, Paonias excaecata

Paonias excaecata (blinded sphinx) | Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve, Mason Co., Illinois


More chillin’ after work
Pinewoods Lake, southeast Missouri (28 July 2015)

Another species of Prionus that I hadn’t seen for many years was P. pocularis, a species found in the pineywoods across the southeastern U.S. and, thus, reaching its northwestern distributional limits in the shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) forests of the Ozark Highlands in southern Missouri. Like P. debilis, I had only seen this species once before—two males at a blacklight at Pinewoods Lake National Forest Recreation Area in Carter County many years ago. Unlike P. debilis, however, these were seen later in summer, as were a few other specimens known from the state. That being the case, I decided to try the prionic acid lures at Pinewoods Lake while traveling back up from Tennessee. I arrived at the lake shortly before sunset and, after getting the traps put out and the lights setup, had the chance to look out over the lake and its surrounding forests where I had collected so many insects back in the 1980s as a young, eager, budding coleopterist.

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Quite some time passed and no Prionus beetles were seen at the light or in the trap (but several other longhorned beetles did occur). Recalling my experience with P. debilis in Kansas a few weeks earlier, I remained hopeful, and eventually my optimism was rewarded when I found this single male floating in the trap’s ethanol preservative. Curiously, it would be the only male seen that night, although several individuals of the related and much more common P. imbricornis were attracted to the prionic acid lures.

Prionus pocularis

Prionus pocularis in prionic acid lure-baited trap | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Several other insects did come to the blacklights, among the more photogenic being this underwing moth (genus Catacola, family Noctuidae) identified by Mathew L. Brust as Catocala neogama.

Catocala neogama

Catocala neogama at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Even more photogenic than underwings are royal moths (family Saturniidae), including this imperial moth, Eacles imperialis.

Eacles imperialis (imperial moth)

Eacles imperialis (imperial moth) at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Among the longhorned beetles I mentioned that did come to the lights was this Orthosoma brunneum (brown prionid). This species is closely related to prionid beetles (both are in the subfamily Prioninae). However, it is not a member of the genus Prionus, and, thus, is not attracted to prionic acid. It is perhaps no coincidence that males of this species do not exhibit the hypersegmentation and flabellate modifications of their antennae possessed by males in the genus Prionus, though they may still rely on sex pheromones for locating females.

Orthosoma brunneum

Orthosoma brunneum at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Even spiders were coming to the blacklights, perhaps attracted not by the light itself but by the ready availability of potential prey.

Black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans) female

Latrodectus mactans (black widow) at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri


Cicadamania!
White River Hills region, southwest Missouri (1–2 August 2015)

Although I had succeeded in finding Prionus pocularis earlier in the week at Pinewoods Lake, I wasn’t satisfied with having found just a single individual. I had nothing on the calendar the following weekend, so I decided to make a run down to one of my favorite areas in all of Missouri—the White River Hills of extreme southwest Missouri. The only other record of the species in Missouri is from that area, with its abundance of shortleaf pine forests (the species breeds in decadent pines), and I though how nice it would be to find more individuals in a part of the state that I love so much. The plan was to drive down, set a prionic acid trap or two once I got into the pine forests of the area, and then find a good spot to setup some blacklights with one more prionic acid trap that I could monitor. The plan was executed perfectly, and I ended up setting up the lights on a ridge just south of Roaring River State Park; however, the beetles never came. Nevertheless, like I said earlier a bad day/night of bug collecting is still better than just about anything else, and there was plenty at and near the lights to keep the night interesting. Once was this tiny walkingstick nymph that I found hanging out at the tip of a blade of grass. I was intrigued by the rather peculiar position adopted by the resting animal, with its forelegs and antennae extended straight out in front of the body with their tips resting on the grass blade.

Undet. juvenile walkingstick

Undetermined walkingstick nymph | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

One thing I love about blacklighting for insects is the sounds of the night—katydids fill the black night with raspy calls while Whip-Poor-Wills and their country cousins the Poor-Will’s-Widows hoot and cluck in the distance.

Undet. adult katydid?

Undetermined katydid | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

As I was photographing the walkingstick, I felt something crawling on my neck. After many years of doing this, I’ve learned not to freak out and slap wildly at something crawling on my neck, because 1) more often than not it is something interesting and 2) even if it isn’t particularly interesting it’s almost never capable of biting or stinging. Still, I don’t want to just grab it unseen or pin it against my neck—instead I kind of “scoop” it away with my fingers and toss it onto the ground beside me in one swift, assertive movement. This night’s mystery neck crawler was about as interesting as they get—Dynastes tityus (eastern Hercules beetle), the largest beetle in eastern North America. This one is a female by virtue of its lack of any horns on the head and pronotum.

Dynastes tityus female

Female Dynastes tityus (eastern Hercules beetle) | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

After pulling the lights down for the night, I drove to Mincy Conservation Area, one of the many dolomite glades in the area in the next county over and one that I had not visited for some time. There are no hotels in the area, and my bones are a little too old to be sleeping on the ground, so I just pulled into the campground, took off my shoes, changed into PJs, and laid the driver’s seat all the way back for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. My frugalness would have its reward, although I did not know it until I awoke early the next morning to a hauntingly beautiful fog. I’d never seen the glades in such manner—so serene. I knew the rising sun would quickly burn off the fog and and the moment would be lost if I didn’t act quickly, so I grabbed both big camera and iPhone and, put on some shoes (didn’t bother with changing out of my PJs), and walked the glade taking as many photos as I could. While the quality of the iPhone snaps doesn’t compare with those taken with the big camera, they nevertheless convey the quiet beauty of the glade.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

Morning fog over the dolomite glade | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Missouri coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) is a characteristic plant of limestone and dolomite glades in the Ozark Highlands of southern Missouri.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

Missouri coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Morning dew makes spider webs abundantly conspicuous.

Morning fog on a spider web

Morning fog on a spider web | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Eventually the rising sun began to burn through the cool, damp fog, portending another day of searing heat in the xeric glade landscape.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

The rising sun begins to burn off the fog | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Heading back to my car as temperatures began to rise quickly, I was struck by the cacophony of cicadas that were already getting into high gear with their droning buzz calls. As I passed underneath one particular tree I noticed the song was coming from a branch very near my head. I like cicadas, but I was there to look for the spectacular Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer), a glade species associated with gum bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum). Had it been the song of a “normal” cicada like Neotibicen lyricen (lyric cicada) or N. pruinosus (scissor grinder cicada) I would have paid it no mind. It was, instead, unfamiliar and distinctive, and when I searched the branches above me I recognized the beautiful insect responsible for the call as Neotibicen superbus (superb cicada), a southwest Missouri specialty—sumptuous lime-green above and bright white pruinose beneath. I had not seen this spectacular species since the mid 1980s (most of my visits to the area have been in the spring or the fall rather than high summer), so I spent the next couple of hours attempting to photograph an individual in situ with the big camera. This is much, much easier said than done—the bulging eyes of cicadas give them exceptional vision, and they are very skittish and quick to take flight. I knew I had the iPhone photo shown below if all else failed, and for some time every individual I tried to approach ended up fluttering off with a screech before I could even compose a shot, much less press the shutter. Persistence paid off, however, and I eventually succeeded in locating, approaching, and photographing an unusually calm female resting at chest height on the trunk of a persimmon tree. Along the way I checked the gum bumelia trees hoping to spot one of the beautiful longhorned beetles associated with that tree, but none were seen.

Neotibicen superbus

Neotibicen superbus

It was already high noon by the time I finished up at the Mincy glades, so I began to retrace my steps to check the prionic acid traps that I had set out the day before. Along the way I stopped by Chute Ridge Glade Natural Area in Roaring River State Park, another place where I have seen bumelia borers, so I stopped to try my luck there before continuing on to pick up the traps. Again, none were seen, but in addition to numerous individuals of N. superbus I found another species of cicada, still undetermined by more robust and nearly blackish and with a throatier call that sounding a bit like a machine gun (or table saw hitting a nail!). Despite the lack of bumelia borers, I enjoyed my time on the glade immensely and eventually had to call it quits if I was to get to all of my traps before nightfall.

IMG_6373_enh_1230x720


Still more chillin’ after work
Pinewoods Lake, southeast Missouri (11 August 2015)

Two attempts at Prionus pocularis in the past two weeks had netted me but a single specimen—this species was becoming my summer nemesis. So when I found myself back in Tennessee for field trial work and the timing still right I decided to spend the evening at Pinewoods Lake once again before heading back to St. Louis and see if the third time would be a charm. I found a new restaurant in the tiny nearby town of Ellsinore, and the dinner special that evening was fried catfish—hoo boy! My belly was in a good place after that, filling me with optimism that I would have success tonight. I got to the lake at dusk, quick setup the blacklights and put the prionic acid traps in place, and waited for the bugs to come in.

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Pinewoods Lake at dusk, again!

The evening’s first visitor to the lights was a parandrine cerambycid—Neandra brunnea. Believe it or not, this was the first time I have ever seen the species alive (once before finding a dead specimen in a Japanese beetle trap waaaay back in the mid-1980s!)—a pretty nice find. In fact, Pinewoods Lake produced a number of good finds during those days back in the 1980s when I was collecting here regularly—longhorned beetles such as Acanthocinus nodosus, Enaphalodes hispicornis, and the aforementioned Prionus pocularis, male Lucanus elaphus stage beetles, the jewel beetle Dicerca pugionata on ninebark in the draws, and the seldom seen tiger beetle Apterodela unipunctata (formerly Cylindera unipunctata), just to name a few.

Neandra brunnea

Neandra brunnea | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Seeing N. brunnea and the prospects of collecting P. pocularis weren’t the only things putting me in a good mood…

Blacklighting w/ beer

Blacklighting is better with beer!

My optimism, unfortunately, would eventually prove to be unfounded, as not only did P. pocularis never show up—either at the blacklights or the prionic acid traps, no other beetles showed up as well, longhorned or otherwise. When that happens, I have no choice but to start paying attention to other insects that show up at the lights. It was slim pickings on this night for some reason, making this already striking moth identified by Alex Harman as Panthea furcilla  (tufted white pine caterpillar or eastern panthea) in the family Noctuidae stand out even more so. 

Panthea furcilla

Panthea furcilla | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

While walking between the blacklights and the prionic acid traps, something suspended between two trees caught my eye. I recognized it quickly as some type of orb weaver spider (family Araneidae), but I couldn’t exactly figure out exactly what was going on until I took a closer look and saw that there were actually two spiders! I’d never seen orb weaver courtship before, so I excitedly took a few quick shots with the iPhone and then hurried back to the car to get the big camera.

Neoscona sp. courtship

Be very, very careful boy!

Sadly, the male had already departed by the time I got back, so the quick iPhone photos I took are the only record I have of that encounter. Still, I got some good photos of just the female with the big camera, along with the quicker, dirtier iPhone shots—one of which is shown below. According to Eric Eaton these are likely a species in the genus Neoscona.

Neoscona sp.

Neoscona sp. | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri


Checking out a fen
Coonville Creek Natural Area, southeast Missouri (3 September 2015)

On yet another trip back to St. Louis from Tennessee, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Coonville Creek Natural Area in St. Francois State Park, an area I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years and the outstanding feature being the calcareous wet meadow, or “fen”, that dominates the upper reaches of the creek drainage. Fen soils are constantly saturated, a result of groundwater from surrounding hills percolating through porous dolomite bedrock before hitting a resistant layer (in this case, sandstone) and seeping out onto the lower slopes. Constantly saturated soils and occasional fires (at least historically) have kept the fen open and treeless, with the cool groundwater allowing “glacial relicts” (i.e., plants common when glaciers covered the area) to persist. 

Calcareous wet meadow

Calcareous wet meadow | Coonville Creek, St. Francois State Park, St. Francois Co., Missouri

I saw a few Cicindela splendida (Splendid Tiger Beetles) on the rocky, clay 2-track leading to the area—a sure sign that fall was just around the corner, a female cicada on herbaceous vegetation in the fen (small, I think it’s not a species of Neotibicen), and a huge, fecund black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia)—I love seeing the latter at this time of year when they have grown to their largest and the females are full of eggs. In reality, however, this visit turned into more of a botanical than an insect collecting experience. Insect activity in general was low, and my attention drifted instead to the diversity of wildflowers that were present on the fen—most new to me. False dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana), great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), and Spiranthes lacera (slender ladies’-tresses orchid)—its tiny white blossoms spiraling up the leafless spike were the most interesting, resulting in lots of time spent looking at them through the big camera.

Argiope aurantia

Argiope aurantia | Coonville Creek, St. Francois Co., Missouri


The always exciting amorpha borer
Otter Slough Conservation Area, southeast Missouri (23 September 2015)

As the dog-days of summer gave way to bright, blue skies and crisp, fall air, a distinctive insect fauna takes advantage of the explosion of goldenrod that blooms across a landscape morphing from shades of green to orange, yellow, and tawny. Many of these insects are widespread and super-abundant—soldier beetles, tachinid flies, bumble and honey bees, and scoliid, tiphiid, and vespid wasps are among the most conspicuous. Megacyllene robiniae, longhorned beetles commonly called locust borers  are also common on goldenrod during fall, but much less common is a closely related species that breeds in false indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa)—Megacyllene decora, or the amorpha borer. I’ve seen this species several times, yet uncommonly enough that I still target it when I get the chance. One such place is Otter Slough Conservation Area—yet another interesting place along the way between Tennessee and St. Louis. On one of my final trips back this way I stopped by to see if these spectacular beetles would be out. My attention was first caught by egrets congregating in a mud flat exposed by recent dry weather. However, they were not what I was looking for.

Egrets congregating on mud flats

Egrets congregating on mud flats | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

There is no shortage of interesting insects to look at as I begin scanning the goldenrod flowers growing along the roadsides and around the edges of the shallow pools managed for fishing and shore birds. A fat, female Stagmomantis carolina (Carolina mantis) sat on one of the first inflorescences that I checked, but she also was not what I was looking for.

Undet. mantid

Stagmomantis carolina | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

After a bit of searching, I found what I was looking for! Over the course of the next two hours (all the time I had left before sundown) I would a total of three adults on goldenrod flowers at three disparate locations within the area—again not very many, making those that I did see a real treat.

Megacyllene decora

Megacyllene decora on goldenrod | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

As dusk fell over the area, insects began bedding down for the night. I was lucky to find the last amorpha borer in the dwindling light as it bedded down next to a bumblebee—perhaps the likely model for the beetle apparent mimetic coloration.

Megacyllene decora

Megacyllene decora and a bumble bee bed down together | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

The sun sinking over the horizon behind the wetlands put an end to the collecting, not only for the day but for the season, at least here in Missouri and surrounding states. It would not be the final day of collecting for me, however, as I managed to scrape together some free time amidst my hectic travel schedule and spend a week in eastern Texas for the Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Hunt. I’ll save that trip for another report and close this one out here, but be on the lookout for higher quality photos over the coming months of the really interesting insects that I encountered over this past season. Let me also say that if you’re still reading at this point, you have my deepest admiration for having the persistence to wade through all 8,376 of the words contained within this post!

Dusk over Plover Pond

Sunset over Plover Pond | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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

BitB Best of 2009

In my first post of 2009, I looked back at the photographs I had posted during 2008 and picked some of my personal favorites. I hesitated then to call myself a photographer (and still do), but I at least now have suitable equipment to aid in my progress toward that eventual goal. I have learned much over the past six months in my first attempt at serious insect macrophotography (prioritizing in situ field photographs of unmanipulated subjects as a matter of personal choice).  Through this, I’ve come to realize the following skills to be the most important for success:  

  1. Composition
  2. Understanding lighting
  3. Knowing how to use a flash
  4. Knowledge of the subject

I’ll give myself a “A” in the last of these, but in the other areas I still have much to learn. With this caveat, and for the last post of 2009, I offer the following twelve photographs as my final choices for the 2nd Annual “Best of BitB”:  

Best beetle

Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle), Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Revisiting the Swift Tiger Beetle – Part 1 (June 30).  A decent enough photograph, especially considering that I’d had my camera for about a month when I took it.  However, the discovery of robust populations of this formerly rare and enigmatic species throughout northwestern Oklahoma (and later also in northwestern Missouri) was the most significant find of the 2009 field season, and this photograph is the best capture of that moment.

Best fly

Stylogaster neglecta, a species of thickheaded fly

From Overlooked, needle-bellied, thick-headed fly (Aug 14).  One of my first good “black background” shots.  The white tip of the abdomen compliments the white flower stamens against the background.

Best “true” bug

Beameria venosa, a prairie obligate cicada

From North America’s smallest cicada (Aug 4).  So many different shades of green with white frosting on the bug’s body.  I tried taking this shot in portrait and it just didn’t work—I liked this landscape shot much better.

Best predator

Promachus hinei (Hines giant robber fly) & Ceratina sp. (small carpenter bee) prey

From Prey bee mine (Sept 14).  Robber flies are immensely photogenic, especially those in the genus Promachus due to their prominent “beards.”

Best camoflauge

Dicerca obscura on bark of dead persimmon

From The “obscure” Dicerca (June 19).  Sparkling and gaudy as specimens in a cabinet, the coloration of many jewel beetles actually helps them blend almost perfectly with the bark of their preferred tree hosts.

Best immature insect

Tetracha floridana (Florida metallic tiger beetle) 3rd-instar larva

From Anatomy of a Tiger Beetle Larva (Oct 22).  “Otherwordly” is invariably the first word that comes to mind when someone sees a tiger beetle larva for the first time.  I was lucky enough to get this one in profile with a nice view of its abdominal hump and its curious hooks.

Best arachnid

Centruroides vittatus (striped bark scorpion)

From A face only a mother could love (Oct 6).  Despite some minor depth-of-field problems with this photograph, I’m fascinated by its “smile.”

Best reptile

Eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris collaris) adult male

From North America’s most beautiful lizard (July 10).  A simply spectacular lizard—all I had to do was frame it well and get the flash right.

Best wildflower

Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains ladies

From Great Plains Ladies’-tresses (Dec 7).  Few flowers are as photogenic as orchids, even native terrestrials with minute flowers such as this one.  I like the frosty texture of the lip and the starkness of the white flower on the black background.

Best natural history moment

Thermoregulatory behavior by Ellipsoptera hirtilabris (moustached tiger beetle)

From Tiger Beetles Agree—It’s Hot in Florida! (Dec 18). I chose this photo for the classic “stilting” and “sun-facing” thermoregulatory behaviors exhibited by this tiger beetle on a blistering hot day in Florida.

Best closeup

Megaphasma denticrus (giant walkingstick)

From North America’s longest insect (Aug 21).  I haven’t tried a whole lot of super close-up photographs yet.  I liked the combination of blue and brown colors on the black background.

Best Landscape

Sand Harbor Overlook, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

From Sand Harbor Overlook, Nevada (March 23).   My choice for “best landscape” again comes from Lake Tahoe.  This is not a great photo technically—I was still using a point-and-shoot and had to deal with foreground sun.  However, none of the other photos I took during my March visit to the area captivate me like this one.  I like the mix of colors with the silhouetted appearance of the trees on the point.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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North America’s longest insect

This past June might be the most successful month entomologically that I’ve ever had.  The excitement of discovering a robust population of Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle) (previously considered one of North America’s rarest tiger beetles) in northwestern Oklahoma lasted only two weeks before being eclipsed by our long-awaited success at finding this same species also in Missouri.  Icing on the cake was provided by finding Ellipsoptera macra (sandy stream tiger beetle) – the last tiger beetle species we had yet to encounter in Missouri, and significant new records for the tiny prairie cicada, Beameria venosa, and the impressive robber fly, Ospriocerus abdominalis, in Missouri’s critically imperiled loess hilltop prairies.  With that rapid-succession-success, my thoughts immediately turned to another of Missouri’s unique natural communities – the dolomite glades of the White River Hills in the extreme southwestern part of the state.  In fact, I had already been yearning to return to the White River Hills, having last visited some years ago and recalling – from the perspective now as an insect photographer – the many photogenic insect species that I’ve encountered there.  Chief among them is Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer), a spectacularly beautiful longhorned beetle of neotropical affinity that must be seen to be believed and which I had observed here several years ago in fair numbers as they perched on the lower trunks of their presumed larval host, Sideroxylon (= Bumelia) lanuginosa of the family Sapotaceae.  I had even mentioned to my colleague Chris Brown, as we began the first day of our planned multi-weekend search for C. celeripes and C. macra in northwestern Missouri, that my dream scenario was that we would find both celeripes and macra on that first weekend, negating the need for additional survey the following weekends, in which case we could shoot down to the White River Hills to look for Plinthocoelium.  Who knew how prescient that comment would be!

Megaphasma denticrus - giant walkingstick

Megaphasma denticrus - giant walkingstick

I won’t keep you in suspense – I succeeded in finding and photographing Plinthocoelium, although (happily) there is more to the story than just that.  I’ll share that experience here soon, but first I want to discuss another insect I saw on the first of my two July visits to the White River Hills – Megaphasma denticrus¹ (giant walkingstick).  As implied by its common name, this walkingstick is enormous – females (typically larger than males) can reach lengths of 150+ mm (that’s 6 inches, folks!), making it officially the longest insect species in all of North America.  IMG_0909_1200x800The female I feature here was solidly in that range, and with her front legs held outstretched in front of her (as pictured above), total length exceeded 8 inches.  Of course, this pales in comparison to a related species from Borneo, individuals of which have been documented measuring more than 18 inches in length!  The giant walkingstick is distributed primarily in the south-central U.S. – especially Texas, although records do exist from as far north and east as Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana (Arment 2005). I have encountered this species a few times before – always in the White River Hills, but Arment (2005) also records the species from several other counties in the Ozark Highlands across southern Missouri and Arkansas.  In addition to its great size, both sexes of this species can be distinguished from other walkingsticks by the rows of numerous teeth on the underside of the middle (meso-) femur (easily seen in the enlarged view of Photo 2 above) and by the very long antennae (longer than the front femur).  Color is variable – other individuals I have seen are tan with bright red dorsal stripes on the thoracic segments.

¹ Formerly classified with grasshoppers and their kin in the order Orthoptera, walkingsticks are now placed their own order, Phasmatodea, the name being derived from the Greek phasma (apparition, ghost) in reference to their cryptic appearance and behavior (the alternative spellings Phasmodea and Phasmida are improper formations from the Greek root – see Grimaldi and Engel 2005).  The genus name, Megaphasma, thus means “giant walkingstick.”  The specific epithet, denticrus, is derived from the Latin den (tooth) and crus (leg), presumably a reference to the toothed underside of the mesofemur. Many authors, including even some taxonomists (e.g., Beamer 1932), have mispelled the name as “dentricus” – nonsensical in Latin – with some even using both spellings in the same paper (e.g., Maginnis et al. 2008)!

Of course, an outstanding feature of this species, and all walkingsticks in general, is its uncanny resemblance to sticks and twigs.  This cryptic appearance is further augmented behaviorally by the habit of “swaying” back and forth to simulate movement in a gentle breeze.  I must confess that I did not even notice this large female individual – less than two feet away on a low branch – until she started moving about.  Once spotted, a walkingstick of this size would seem to be a tasty – and defenseless – morsel for some avian predator; however, they have another defensive tactic up their sleeve – autotomy (i.e., the ability to shed appendages in response to predatory attack). IMG_0913_1200x800While it may seem that their long, delicate-looking legs are simply “pulled off” by the predator, fortuitously allowing the walkingstick to clamber to safety, leg shed is actually controlled by the central nervous system in response to external stimuli (e.g., grabbing of the leg).  Breakage occurs at predetermined abcission points, which are rapidly sealed after shedding to prevent excessive loss of body fluids.  I experienced this first hand – lacking any container large enough to hold the enormous female, I gently placed her into my net and gingerly carried her back to the truck, only to find a hind leg already shed by the time I got back.  I decided the effort to glue one (or more) legs in place to acheive a well-curated specimen exceeded my interest in starting a collection of this particular group of insects, so I let her go.  Presumably she crawled away to safety, though sadly no longer the ‘perfect’ specimen that I first encountered.

Photo details:
Photo 1 (full insect): Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D (auto mode), ISO 200, 1/320 sec, f/5.6, natural light.
Photos 2 (midrange) and 3 (closeup): same except (manual mode), ISO 100, 1/60 (Photo 2) or 1/250 (Photo 3) sec, f/10 (Photo 2) or f/20 (Photo 3), MT-24EX flash 1/4 power w/ diffuser caps.

REFERENCES:

Arment, C. 2005. Stick Insects of the Continental United States and Canada: Species and Early Studies. Coachwhip Publications, Landisville, Pennsylvania, 202 pp.

Beamer, R. H. 1932. The giant walking-stick (Megaphasma dentricus (Stal.)) found in Kansas. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 5(1):28.

Grimaldi, D. and M. S. Engel. 2005. Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge University Press, New York, xv + 755 pp.

Maginnis, T. L., Cool, C. L. and J. L. Muniz. 2008. Some observations on the mating behavior of the giant walkingstick, Megaphasma dentricus (Orthoptera: Phasmidae). Texas Journal of Science 60(1):57-62.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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