Hiking at Valley View Glades Natural Area

My good hiking/collecting buddy Rich called me yesterday and asked if I was interested in a hike. Since I am retired, and he is retired, there was nothing on either of our schedules that prevented us from doing it the very next day, so we decided to come to one of our favorite places that we haven’t been to in awhile—Valley View Glades Natural Area near Hillsboro.

Fall color beginning at Valley View Glades Natural Area.

I brought my big camera along because I figured Great Plains ladies’-tresses orchids (Spiranthes magnicamporum) would be in good bloom, and I wanted to get good closeups with a blue sky background (I was successful in that regard—photos coming soon). I also brought along my collecting pack in case we found a beetle or two, but in this regard I was only half-successful—careful examination of several ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius intermedius) patches did not reveal any Dicerca pugionata (seen a week ago at nearby Victoria Glades), but I did find a Blackburn’s earth-boring beetle (Geotrupes blackburni) on the trail. We also found a gum bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum) tree with copious amounts of frass at the base, indicating infestation by a bumelia borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolens), and I recorded the location so I could put an emergence cage at the base of the tree next season to catch the emerging adult.

One other item of botanical interest was downy goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris) growing near the margins of the dry post oak woodlands—a species I’ve not previously noticed but was able to recognize due to its combination of recurved phyllaries and moderately widened leaves without teeth (Buckley’s goldenrod, S. buckleyi, also has recurved phyllaries but wider leaves with the edges distinctly toothed).

Downy goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris).
Downy goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris).
Downy goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris).
Downy goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris).
Downy goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris).

An especially colorful gall caused by the cynipid wasp Atrusca quercuscentricola on the leaf of post oak (Quercus stellata) piqued both entomological and botanical curiosity.

Atrusca quercuscentricola gall on leaf of post oak (Quercus stellata). Note adult emergence hole in upper left of gall.
Atrusca quercuscentricola gall on leaf of post oak (Quercus stellata)—turned upside down.

Near the end of the hike, I pointed out a shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) tree that may be the northernmost naturally-occurring shortleaf pine in the state. I am aware of some trees further north along Hwy 21 at Sunridge Tower Park and in St. Louis Co. at Rockwoods Reservation, but I believe in both of these cases they are planted.

Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

“62nd” Annual “Season-Opener-Birthday-Bug-Collecting-Trip”

This past Tuesday was my birthday, and as I have done for my entire adult life I took the day off and went on my traditional “Season-Opener-Bug-Collecting-Trip”. In the past I’ve usually just had one friend go with me, but today I had three—Rich, Chris, and Bill!

We started off by heading south about 3½ hours to Tingler Prairie Natural Area in Howell Co.. I wanted to come here because: 1) it was a place I’d never visited before, and 2) there is a population here of the endemic Ozark trillium (Trillium viridescens) that I thought might be in bloom. Rain in the forecast and a patch of the real thing on the way down had us a little worried, but the day turned out spectacular with temps climbing to 80°F and skies partly to mostly sunny.

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Tingler Lake – the centerpiece of Tingler Prairie Natural Area.

We never did find the trillium—even calling another friend (Casey), who had seen them here before to find out exactly where he saw them. Turns out we hit the right spot, but apparently we were too early, especially given how late spring has been moving along this year. Nevertheless, we still found much to capture our interest, including a yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris)—too quick for photos—and a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) that coiled up nicely under the end of a fallen log and tolerated my prodding and “cleaning” of the scene around him to get some good photos (albeit, only with the iPhone).

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Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus).

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The “cloudy” eye is actually an artifact of the flash lighting reflected by the retina.

Unfortunately, insect activity was very light. We saw no tiger beetles and only the earliest spring forms of most other insects. I took about 10 specimens each of the early-spring jewel beetles Acmaeodera tubulus and Pachyschelus purpureus, which I found on flowers and foliage (respectively) of wild geranium, Geranium maculatum. It was the first time that I’d found the latter as abundant as this, so the series of specimens will be a welcome addition to my cabinet. I also took a couple of A. tubulus on a flower of violet wood sorrel, Oxalis violacea and showed the others the characteristic end of an oak twig pruned by a twig pruner (Anelaphus parallelus) larvae (and revealed the culprit for them to see). Despite the paucity of insects, it was a beautiful and high-quality spot, and I look forward to collecting here again sometime when the season is more advanced.

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Several adult Acmaeodera tubulus feeding on petals of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) flowers.

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Twig pruner, Anelaphus parallelus, larva cut from its gallery near the base of a pruned oak twig.

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Revealing the culprit while Chris takes notes on some of the birds he’s been hearing.

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Redspotted purple butterfly, Limnetis arthemis astyanax (family Nymphalidae), caterpillar on black cherry (Prunus serotina), one of its favorite host plants. The caterpillar mimics bird droppings for protection.

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Fire pink, Silene virginica (family Caryophyllaceae) thrives on a dry, cherty hillside.

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Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum (family Berberidaceae) prefers the rich, more mesic hillsides (this is where we expected Trillium viridescens to occur).

After finishing up at Tingler Prairie, we drove east an hour and bushwhacked over rough Forest Service 2-track to Bald Hill Glade Natural Area in Ripley Co. It had been close to 10 years since my previous visit, but I remembered the roads well. We had to park, however, about a mile from the entrance to the glade due to fallen trees across the final stretch 2-track. The landscape had changed considerably since my last visit—gone was the dense, close forest lining the 2-track, and in its place stood open woodland brought to this condition by active management that included the use of prescribed burning apparently as recently as the past season.

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Dwarf iris (Iris cristata).

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These diminutive plants are distinguished from other members of the genus by their short stature and sepals with midline beards.

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Bald Knob Glade Natural Area.

After hoofing through the forest we reached the glade and found a beautiful—if somewhat sterile—scene before us. The recent burn included not only the woodland but also the glade itself, and no unburned refugia could be found anywhere. Floristically, this is beneficial for the glade, which needs periodic fire to prevent woody encroachment, but in my experience such burns also result in severely depressed insect populations for years afterwards. It takes time for the insects to find and recolonize the glade, and in this case the lack of unburned refugia will only increase the amount of time that will be needed for the insect populations to recover.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed our hike through the area, watched and listened to the calls and songs of a number of cool birds, including summer tanagers, indigo buntings, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and—a first for me—the splendidly yellow prairie warbler. We also took photographs of the glade and some of its plants (with the big camera), and on the way back to the car we found several of the Polistes wasp-mimicking light flies, Pyrgota undata (family Pyrgotidae). Interestingly, all were mating pairs, and the ones we observed closely (as we photographed them with the big camera) were engaged in a most curious “French kissing” behavior. I can’t wait to read up more on this when I prepare to post the photos of this behavior.

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Widow’s cross (Sedum pulchellum).

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Me, Rich, Bill, and Chris.

Eventually, impending dusk signaled a close to the day, and after driving east another 1½ hours to have pizza dinner in Poplar Bluff we made the long drive back to St. Louis (arriving at my home at 12:30 a.m.!).

NOTE: All photos in this post were taken and processed with an iPhone X. The “real” photos taken with our “real” cameras will be shared as they become available.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

When hardcore botany meets hardcore nature photography—nature geekery at its finest!

Last Saturday, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Nature Photography Group was joined by several members of the WGNSS Botany Group and Missouri Native Plant Society to look for one of Missouri’s rarest plants—Geocarpon minimum, a.k.a. tinytim or earth-fruit (family Caryophyllaceae). This diminutive, federally-threatened and state-endangered plant grows only on sandstone glades, primarily in west-central Missouri with a few populations known also from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The window for finding this plant is short—it’s entire life cycle lasts only about 4 weeks, with an even shorter window for finding it in flower.

Our first stop to look for them was Bona (pronounced “Bonnie”) Glade Natural Area. I’d been here before, but it was about 10 years ago and at the wrong time to look for this plant (but I did find widowscross, Sedum pulchellum, in bloom). Some of the group had seen it here before and were able to coach us on the microhabitat where we would likely find them, and it didn’t take long before we did. Soon after finding the first plants, we found them in bloom as well—their almost microscopic flowers being the perfect subject for my macro lenses!

Remnant sandstone glade at Bona Glade Natural Area, Dade Co., Missouri.

Geocarpon minimum (tinytim or earth-fruit). Note the tiny open flowers just below center. (This is an iPhone photo—I have much better photos with my “big” camera.)

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) (family Montiaceae).

After getting plenty of shots of the plant and flowers, we moved to an adjacent plot of land across the highway, where we not only found more tinytim plants but also Corydalis aurea, commonly called golden corydalis (pronounced koor-ID-uh-lyss), in the family Papaveraceae—something I’d never seen before.

Sedum pulchellum (widowscross) (family Crassulaceae).

Corydalis aurea (golden corydalis).

Next the group moved on to Corry Branch Glade. It was originally our intent to look for more of the plant at this site, but immediately upon entering the glade we noticed a stunning display of Selenia aurea, or golden selenia. This small, striking species in the mustard family is restricted to just a handful of counties in the west-central part of the state, again primarily glade habitats. It was a surprising and pleasant find that occupied the groups’ attentions for some time before we finally decided to break for lunch (it was well into the afternoon!). While I was there, I not only photographed the plant but started having some success with my new 15-mm wide-angle macro lens, with which I had been experimenting all day (to that point without much success).

Selenia aurea (golden selenia) (family Brassicaceae).

Members of WGNSS & MoNPS go hunting for rare plants! Front to back: Ted MacRae (me), John Oliver, Casey & Anh Do Galvan, Steve Turner, Bill Duncan, David Seidensticker, Deb Tyler, Adam Rembert, and James Faupel.

After “lunch” (which was closer to dinner!), a few of us (Bill, David, and I) wanted to go back to Bona Glade to take another crack at photographing tinytim with our wide-angle macro lens. I especially was not satisfied with what I had gotten earlier, that being my first serious attempt at using the lens in the field. Having a better idea now of how to use the lens and what our compositional goals were, we scoured the area looking for just the right plants in just the right situations. I can honestly say I finally got a feel for how to use the lens, the trickiest part of it being how to balance use of flash on the subject with the amount of ambient light from the background (I’m not a stranger to this concept at all, frequently having combined flash with “blue sky” in much of the macrophotography I’ve done up to this point). We photographed several plants on different substrates looking for the right combination of plant, substrate, and background, and we all walked away pretty optimistic that we’d gotten the photos that we wanted.

Bill Duncan photographing tinytim with his wide-angle macro lens.

Amelanchier arborea (serviceberry) (family Rosaceae).

My thanks to Casey and Ando Galvan for letting me ride down there with them, to David Seidensticker and Bill Duncan for letting me ride back with them, and for everyone in the group who so generously shared their great, collective knowledge of botany, photography, and natural history. What a fun day!

NOTE: The photos in this post were taken with an iPhone X. The “real” photos, taken with our “real” cameras, will be shared as they become available.

© 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

Spring beetles on Coreopsis flowers

Abby Lee, Ryan Fairbanks, Stephen Penn atop a rhyolite glades

The WGNSS Entomology Group takes in the view of rhyolite glades from atop Hughes Mountain.

Each spring the Entomology Group of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society takes a field trip to one of the many natural areas outside of the St. Louis area. This year the destination was Hughes Mountain Natural Area, about 75 miles SSW of St. Louis in Washington Co. I especially looked forward to going there this spring, as my last visit to the area was close to 20 years ago. Despite the long absence, I vividly recalled the spectacular vistas from atop the mountain of rhyolite and the diversity of unique plants and insects in the igneous glades that flanked its slopes. When we arrived, we found the glades ablaze with spring wildflowers in full bloom, the most prominent of which was lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). As one of the so-called “yellow composites”, coreopsis is a favored source of pollen and nectar for a variety of insects, including beetles and especially the jewel beetles that I find so interesting.

Acmaeodera neglecta

Acmaeodera neglecta Fall, 1899

Species in the genus Acmaeodera are incredibly diverse in the southwestern U.S. (nearly half of the ~150 species/subspecies known from the U.S. occur in Arizona), where they are usually encountered on a variety of flowers. It is my opinion that the adult beetles mimic small bees, especially in flight by virtue of their fused elytra that do not separate during flight as in most other beetles and thus results in a profile resembling that of a small sweat bee (family Halictidae). The diversity of Acmaeodera drops off considerably in the eastern U.S., with only three species occurring broadly in the area. Missouri is a bit luckier than most eastern states, as two additional species found primarily in the south-central U.S. also occur here (MacRae 1991). One of these is Acmaeodera neglecta Fall, 1899. This tiny species (adults measure only 4–6 mm in length) is very similar to the much more common and widespread A. tubulus (Fabricius, 1801) (see photos here), and in fact its resemblance to that species is so great that it remained unreported from Missouri until Nelson (1987) recognized it among material that I had collected and sent to him during my early collecting days. Acmaeodera neglecta can be distinguished from A. tubulus by the elytra with slightly larger punctures and duller surface and the spots usually longitudinally coalesced into an irregular “C”-shaped marking on each side. I find this species most often in glade habitats.

Acmaeodera ornata

Acmaeodera ornata (Fabricius, 1775)

Acmaeodera ornata (Fabricius, 1775) is more widespread than A. neglecta (although not nearly so commonly encountered as A. tubulus). This handsome species is distinctly larger than A. tubulus and A. neglecta, usually around 8-11 mm in length, and has a broader, more flattened appearance with a distinct triangular depression on the pronotum. The elytra have a bluish cast rather than the bronzy sheen of A. tubulus and A. neglecta, and the spots on the elytra are smaller, more numerous, and more of a creamy rather than yellow color. No other species in the eastern U.S. can be confused with it, although there is a very similar species (A. ornatoides Barr, 1972) that occurs in Oklahoma and Texas. I have encountered this species numerous times on a variety of flowers in Missouri but have never managed to rear it, and in fact larval hosts remain unknown with the exception of one very old (and unreliable) report of the species breeding in hickory (Carya) and black-locust (Robinia).

Valgus canaliculatus

Valgus canaliculatus (Olivier, 1789)

As a general rule, beetles in the family Scarabaeidae don’t visit flowers—species in the subfamily Cetoniinae being a significant exception. This tiny representative of the subfamily, Valgus canaliculatus (Olivier, 1789), is no larger than the Acmaeodera neglecta adult above by length, although the body is broader and strongly flattened. This species is a representative of the tribe Valgini, one of only two tribes in the family that possess dorsal and ventral scale-like setae (the unrelated tribe Hopliini, or monkey beetles, being the other) (Jameson & Swoboda 2005). It has been suggested that the setae might play a role in crysis or adaptive coloration, and even more interesting is the association of most New World species with termites. Eggs are laid in termite galleries and the larvae feed on the wood within the galleries, but it remains unclear whether the termophily is obligatory or the beetles are simply taking advantage of the stable environment and accessible food source offered by termite colonies. Like other species in the subfamily, the adults are fond of flowers; however, only male valgines visit flowers, using specially modified, brush-like mouthparts to lap up nectar. As far as has been determined, the males do not feed on pollen.

Valgus canaliculatus

Note the flattened, scale-like setae covering both the dorsal and ventral surfaces as well as the legs.

REFERENCES:

Fall, H. C.  1899. Synonpsis of the species of Acmaeodera of America, north of Mexico. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 7(1):1–37 [pdf].

Jameson, M. L. & K. A. Swoboda. 2005. Synopsis of scarab beetle tribe Valgini (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Cetoniinae) in the New World. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 98(5):658–672 [pdf].

MacRae, T. C. 1991. The Buprestidae (Coleoptera) of Missouri. Insecta Mundi5(2):101–126 [pdf].

Nelson, G. H. 1987. Additional notes on the biology and distribution of Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North America, II.   The Coleopterists Bulletin 41(1):57–65 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

Oklahoma Collecting Trip iReport

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

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

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

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Mesa landscape

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

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

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

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

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

Beaver Dune

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

A chunky grasshopper nymph inhabiting the dune

A chunky grasshopper nymph inhabiting the main dune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rare ''selfie''

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

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

© Ted C. MacRae 2013

Return to Calico Rock

Sandstone glade | nr. Calico Rock, Arkansas.

Although western sand dune endemics were the top goals on my  during last fall’s Annual Tiger Beetle Trip, I started the trip by leaving St. Louis in the most unlikeliest of directions—south! No, I wasn’t trying to get to Denver without having to drive the tedious stretch of I-70 through Kansas. Rather, I wanted to take advantage of the chance to witness active adults of the Missouri/Arkansas disjunct population of Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (prairie tiger beetle)—perhaps my favorite of all tiger beetle species—on the sandstone glades near Calico Rock in north-central Arkansas. Widely disjunct from the main population’s eastern limit of distribution in central Texas, I’ve seen them at many locations in the White River Hills of southwestern Missouri and adjacent Arkansas over the past ten years, but never in the area around Calico Rock where they are best known from the state. I already had precise localities where I knew I could see them, as I had found 3rd-instar larvae earlier in the year (some of which had already emerged as adults), so I wanted see them and document the range of variability exhibited by adults at this southeasternmost known extent of the disjunct population’s distribution.

Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina | nr. Calico Rock, Arkansas.

Although the adults were not quite as numerous as I have found them at certain sites in Missouri, I had no trouble finding them once I got to the area where I had collected the larvae this past June. While showing Steve Spomer our Missouri population last year, he commented that our Missouri adults seemed much less flighty than adults he had seen at Calico Rock. I must say that I agree with him, as I found the adults much more difficult to photograph than those in Missouri. To be honest, I had to stalk nearly ten individuals before the male in the photo above finally allowed me to get close to him. When adults are numerous this is not a problem, but in this case every failed attempt required several more minutes of searching for the next subject. Eventually, however, I got my mojo and started having success with the photographs.

Unlike true spring-fall species, mating occurs in fall instead of spring.

In the main population, and like other members of the genus Cicindelidia, adults are active during the summer months and exhibit the classic “summer” species life history. The Missouri/Arkansas disjunct population, however, shows a phenologic shift in adult activity to the cooler fall months—perhaps in response to the generally droughty conditions that prevail during the summer in this part of the country followed by rains during late summer and into fall. (This is one reason why I think this population may be deserving of separate subspecific status.) In this regard they appear to be “spring-fall” species, but their life history does not match true members of that group, which emerge during fall as sexually immature adults, hibernate during winter, and re-emerge during spring for mating and oviposition. Thus, one never sees adults of classic spring-fall species like Cicindela limbalis mating during the fall. In contrast, adults of this disjunct population emerge, mate, and lay eggs all during the fall before the onset of winter, then they’re done. The eggs hatch during fall and require another season or two to reach 3rd-instar and pupate during the summer for fall emergence.

Coloration likely functions in crypsis, as shown by this individual nestled in amongst moss and lichens.

When viewed as prepared specimens in a cabinet, C. obsoleta and its subspecies are among the most conspicuous of species due to their large size (in Missouri and Arkansas only Tetracha virginica is larger), olive green coloration, and bold white maculations. More than likely, however, the combination of color and markings serve a crypsis function in their native habitat. This is clearly evident with the individual in the above photograph, who had retreated to a moss- and lichen-covered rock crevice in his efforts to evade my lens. Squint your eyes a little bit, and he almost disappears! It must be similar for visually based predators such as birds and lizards.

On more open ground and from a lower angle, the beetle is much more visible.

This same individual, however, becomes quite visible when chased onto more open rock surfaces (and viewed more laterally than from above). It is common to see individuals out in the open such as this, but more often than not when alarmed they fly or run to less exposed areas, relying on their cryptic coloration to avoid detection. In fact, when I follow beetles that have evaded me to the spot where I am sure they must have landed, I often fail to see them even though I am looking almost exactly in the area where they are sitting until they start to crawl and their movement catches my attention.

A rather greenish individual tries to hide amongst lichens and shortleaf pine duff.

I have observed a great deal of variability in coloration and maculation at locations in Missouri, with individuals ranging from bright green to dull olive-green to dark green and even brown, and the markings ranging from complete to interrupted. I saw a similar amount of variability in the Calico Rock population, with the exception of brownish (which I have only seen at the northernmost localities in Missouri) and fully maculated individuals. Most of the Calico Rock individuals were dull olive-green, but the female in the above photo (trying to evade my attentions by hiding amongst lichens and pine duff) was as bright a green as I’ve seen in any individual.

A very weakly maculate individual.

As mentioned above, I didn’t seen any individuals that I would consider fully maculated, and several that I saw were more weakly maculated than any I’ve seen in Missouri. The female in the photograph above was the most weakly-marked individual that I saw, with the lateral and median bands greatly interruped—the latter nearly reduced to small discal spots.

A dark, almost blackish female.

While I did not see brownish individuals as I have seen at the northernmost localities in Missouri, I did see the occasional blackish individual—the one in the above photograph also exhibiting about the greatest degree of macular development that I observed among the adults seen. My impression now is that there are clinal patterns to the coloration and macular development in this disjunct population, with markings tending to be more developed in northern localities. With the specimens collected from this and the many other locations throughout the disjunct population’s range that I have now sampled, a more critical assessment of variability in this population may now be possible.

Beetle's-eye view of sandstone glade habitat.

It has become standard practice for me to photograph tiger beetle habitats whenever I can. However, I’ve become interested recently in trying to understand how tiger beetles perceive their own habitats. While this isn’t possible to know precisely, ground level photographs can provide at least a clue into seeing the world from a beetle’s eye. I almost find this perspective of the glade habitat more interesting than the human perspective shown in the first photograph.

The last sight that their prey sees.

There can be little doubt about what the beetles themselves look like from the perspective of their prey. The photograph above may not properly represent the image generated by an insect’s collective ommatidia, but it certainly must be just as frightening!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Two things I love about glades during fall…

…prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) in bloom…

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) in bloom | Caney Mountain Cons. Area, Ozark Co., Missouri

…and prairie tiger beetles (Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina) on the prowl…

Prairie tiger beetle (Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina) | Caney Mountain Cons. Area, Ozark Co., Missouri

On the last weekend of August I made another trip to the White River Hills of north-central Arkansas in a last gasp effort to confirm the occurrence in the area of the swift tiger beetle (Cylindera celeripes).  Records of this species include a single individual collected in 1996 at a site near Calico Rock, but two trips to the area this past June had already failed to reveal its presence.  I didn’t really expect that I would find it this time either, and such was the case.  However, what I was expecting/hoping to see was the beginning of the fall emergence of the prairie tiger beetle.  The Missouri/Arkansas disjunct population of this handsome species is perhaps my favorite tiger beetle of all, not only because of its good looks but because of the many spectacular fall collecting trips I’ve taken through the White River Hills to look for it.  In this regard I had success, although only two individuals were seen all day long.  The area around Calico Rock seemed dry, apparently having been missed by the thunderstorms that rolled through the area a week earlier and that would have surely triggered full bore adult emergence. 

Long Bald Glade Natural Area, Caney Mountain Cons. Area, Ozark Co., Missouri

The following day I returned to Caney Mountain Conservation Area on the Missouri side, where last fall I had finally found prairie tiger beetles after years of searching what must be the extreme northeasternmost limit of its distribution.  Fresh evidence of recent rains was seen, and accordingly the beetles were out in fairly decent numbers in the same area where I found them last fall.  I took the opportunity to photograph a few individuals (which I had not done last year) and then turned my attention to looking for other insects.  I had my eye out for the spectacularly beautiful bumelia borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolens) and eventually found one.  I hoped also to see the marvelously monstrous Microstylum morosum (North America’s largest robber fly), which I found at this site in 2009 as a new state record and was rewarded with two individuals (these will serve as vouchers for the state record, since I didn’t collect it in 2009).  Temperatures were rather warm and both of these latter species are traditional “summer” species; however, the presence of prairie tiger beetles, the tawny tinge to the prairie grasses, and the noticeably longer shadows under a deep blue sky told me that fall was, indeed, on the way.

Prairie tiger beetle (Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina) | Caney Mountain Cons. Area, Ozark Co., Missouri

While prairie tiger beetles are (at least for me) the most iconic harbinger of fall in the White River Hills, another classic fall sight was the thick stands of prairie dock plants with their tall, bolting flower spikes.  In Missouri this plant serves as a larval host for the longhorned beetle Ataxia hubbardi.  In my early years of collecting in Missouri’s glades, I delighted in finding adults of these beetles clinging to the flower stalks during fall—presumably laying eggs from which larvae would hatch and bore down into the tap-root.  Although commonly regarded as a pest in sunflower in the southern Great Plains, individuals associated with prairie dock in Missouri’s glades seem different—smaller, narrower, and darker—than those found on sunflower and other more common hosts.  Additional material will be needed to make a final assessment on whether these individuals represent a distinct taxon; however, I have not been able to find this species on prairie dock in Missouri since I moved back to the state nearly 16 years ago.  The reason for this sudden disappearance remains a mystery, and perhaps it is purely coincidental that the Missouri Department of Conservation began managing all of their glades with prescribed burns during my previous 5-year absence from the state.  In the meantime, I will continue to examine prairie dock stems every fall in the hopes that once again I will find the beetles and be able to come to a decision about their taxonomic status.  Perhaps I should re-focus my efforts in “low quality” (i.e., never-burned) gladey roadsides rather than our state’s “high quality” (i.e., high floral diversity) natural areas.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011