Hooray for iStock—I finally have an ID for my photo

I was all set to make a “One-Shot Wednesday” post today, but sometimes big news strikes and plans must change. The news today was in the form of a random tweet by Alex Wild:

iStock-caption_Wild-20131120

The link in the tweet led me to the following photo on iStock by Getty:

bedbug has captured worm

I was stunned—the photo depicted a scene almost identical to one that I had photographed back in September while visiting soybean fields in Louisiana. For two months I sat on the photo with no idea what I was looking at, but now thanks to Alex I have my answer! Compare the above photo with mine below, and you’ll see that everything matches perfectly—I had photographed a “bedbug” that had captured a “worm”!

Podisus maculiventris preying on Chrysodeixis includens larva

bedbug captures a worm

I considered myself to be fortunate, because there was not just one but two different subjects in the photo, and both of them matched perfectly with the subjects shown in the iStock photo. Gotta love the internet—nowadays names for even the most hard-to-identify bugs are just a click away if you know where to look!

</snark>

Of course, the aggressor in both photos is not a “bedbug” [sic for “bed bug”] (order Hemiptera, family Cimicidae) but a stink bug (family Pentatomidae), specifically Podisus maculiventris, or “spined soldier bug”—perhaps the most common predatory stink bug in North Amerca and ranging from Mexico and parts of the West Indies north through the U.S. into Canada. It is a well-known predator of crop pests and, as such, has been imported to several other countries as part of classical biological control efforts. As for the “worm,” in my photo it is a late-instar larva of Chrysodeixis includens, or “soybean looper, and while I haven’t been able to identify the exact species in the iStock photo it is definitely a lepidopteran caterpillar that appears to related to if not in the same family as the soybean looper (Noctuidae). Now, I concede that “worm” is sometimes used for lepidopteran larvae, but one must also concede that in it’s broadest sense “worm” can refer to members of several disparate phyla such as Nematoda (roundworms), Platyhelminthes (flatworms), or Annelida (segmented worms).

This case, of course, just screams for application of the Taxonomy Fail Index (TFI), which scales the amount of error in a taxonomic identification in absolute time against the error of misidentifying a human with a chimpanzee—our closest taxonomic relative. For example, when TFI = 1 the error is of the same magnitude as mistaking a human for a chimp, while  TFI > 1 is a more egregious error and TFI < 1 a more forgivable one. In the case shown here, one must go back to the common ancestor that eventually gave rise to all of the worm phyla and noctuid moths (~937.5 mya). In addition, since there are two subjects in the photo, one must also go back to the divergence of the main hemipteran groups that contain bed bugs and stink bugs (mid-Triassic, ~227.5 mya). This results a whopping 1.165 billion total years of divergence between the identifications assigned to the subjects in the iStock photo and their actual identity. Assuming that chimps and humans diverged approximately 7.5 mya, this gives a TFI for the iStock photo of 155! I haven’t searched thoroughly to determine whether this is a record for the highest TFI in a single photo, but surely it is a strong contender!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Fun at Salinas Grandes

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My colleagues and I greatly enjoyed our visit to the Salinas Grandes salt flats in Catamarca Province, but there was a moment of tension between Federico and Agustín. You see, Federico is only 12″ tall, so we have to keep a close eye on him to make sure he doesn’t get himself into any trouble. Apparently he had wandered off too far for Agustín’s comfort, leading to a bit of a scolding. Despite his small size, however, Federico took it all in stride and stayed close for the remainder of our visit.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

My favorite Super Bowl Commercial

In addition to choosing sides in the game itself, my wife and friends and I always enjoy picking our favorite commercials. My favorite this year came after the game was over but is an obvious choice: “Bugs on Grill” for the Chevrolet Sonic. I even like it better than last year’s favorite, Volkswagon Beetle!

Did everyone remember to go pee-pee?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Diminishing Stag Beetle

This past June I made a couple of trips to north-central Arkansas. They were my first real efforts to collect insects in Arkansas, despite hundreds (literally) of trips to various localities throughout the Ozark Highlands in adjacent southern Missouri. The similarities between the two areas were obvious, yet there was also the feeling of a brand new area just waiting for exploration. On the second trip, I found a campground that looked good for blacklighting to see what wood-boring beetles I might be able to attract amongst the surrounding pine/oak-hickory forest. The evening was warm (very warm!) and humid with no moon—typically ideal for blacklighting, but beetles were sparse at the sheets for some reason (perhaps deterred by the obnoxiously unrelenting yells of drunk Arkansans and their out-of-control offspring?!). The evening, however, was not a total loss—at one point an enormous stag beetle landed on the top of the sheet.  It was so big that I couldn’t even fit it into the viewfinder of my camera:

I fiddled with the camera and changed some settings.  I got a little more of the beetle in the viewfinder this time, but it was still just too big:

Additional fiddling with the camera allowed even more of the beetle to be seen:

As I took the photographs, I even began wondering if the beetle itself was actually shrinking:

Eventually, it turned out to be a normal-sized beetle after all:

This is a female of the common eastern North American species Lucanus capreolus.¹  I don’t seem to encounter female stag beetles as often as the males, so this was still a nice find on an otherwise frustrating night.

¹ Two bonus point in the current BitB Challenge session to the first person who correctly explains how I know this.  Overall contenders: here’s your chance to score an advantage as we enter the final stretch in the current Challenge session.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Enormous Unknown Bug!

The other day I found an enormous bug in my house.  I had no idea what it was when I saw it, so I grabbed my camera and put on the 65mm macro lens to make sure I got some detailed shots of what I figured might be the important characters.  I wouldn’t have even recognized it as an insect, since at first it seemed to have four rather than six legs.  However, I noted that the third pair of legs was actually present, but that one was atrophied to a long, flexible, backward-directed appendage incapable of locomotory or weight bearing function, and that the other leg was missing completely – perhaps aborted during embryogenesis due to some injury or genetic malfunction.

As I said, the bug was enormous and jet-black, although I can’t be sure that is its real color because it was covered so thickly with long, thin, semi-recumbant setae that the surface was completely obscured.  I know a lot of acalyptrate flies are thickly covered with setae, but I’ve never seen a fly with setae so densely packed as this.  The large eyes also pointed towards something in the Diptera, but since it was wingless that narrows the choices down to just a few flightless, ectoparasitic families.  However, most ectoparasitic dipterans have well developed compound eyes, while this one had only two (albeit very large) ocelli.  The above shot gives a decent view of one of them.

The bug was active and alert and quite difficult to photograph, but I managed to get this shot of its mandibles.  The numerous points remind me of the mandibles of certain predaceous coleopterans, which combined with the somber coloration made me think it might be some kind of ground beetle.  If so, it would be the largest ground beetle I had ever seen.  However, I noticed that the mandibles opposed each other in a vertical rather than horizontal plane – something I’ve never seen with ground beetles (or any kind of beetle), nor have I seen a black beetle with the teeth on the mandibles tipped with such a contrasting white coloration.

An even closer view of the white-tipped mandibular teeth shows that each point bears a median groove.  Whether these are wear patterns from mandibular occlusion or serve some feeding function is unknown.  If it is predaceous, as I suspect, they could form channels for directing liquids imbibed from their prey towards they hypostoma.

The frons was the only glabrous part on the entire body (besides the two ocelli and the undersides of the tarsal pads), and its bulbous form with a median groove reminded me of certain auchenorrhynchous hemipterans that have a similar frons containing a cybarial pump to provide suction for obtaining sap from plants.  However, again, the distinctly toothed mandibles suggest this is a predaceous insect, and as far as I have been able to tell all auchenorrhynchans are exclusively plant feeders.

Eventually the insect became quite agitated and began struggling to escape.  I tried to confine it so I could complete my examination and make sure I had enough photos to get an ID, but it began displaying its mandibles in a suggestively threatening manner.  I decided to let it go at that point and hoped that what I had photographed to that point would be sufficient.  Although I still haven’t figure out what insect this is, I don’t think it is a new species since I’ve found quite a few photos on Flickr that seem to show the ocellus of this or related species.  Puzzlingly, there is no indication on any of these photos which insect group they belong to, so I’ll have to keep searching in an effort to come up with an ID.  I’ll post an update here if/when I can find this out.  Until then, this site has some information that might prove useful.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Six beetles Ted still needs for his collection

Today’s guest blogger is longtime friend and insect collecting partner Rich Thoma. Rich and I first met nearly 30 years ago and have been collecting insects together ever since. Rich is a strong advocate for educating children about natural history and has developed some rather fun methods for doing this. His unique sense of humor in doing this is on display in this post.


While Ted’s away, he asked me to fill in for him with an article for Beetles in the Bush.  I thought I would take this opportunity to introduce you to some unique beetle species found in my collection.  All were caught long ago when I first started collecting insects.  Here they are for your enjoyment!

Colorado Mr. Potato Head Beetle (Leptinotarsa decimlineata potatoea)

The Colorado Mr. Potatoe Head Beetle was first discovered by Dan Quayle, ex vice president of the United States cleaning his son’s toy box when the family moved from the vice presidential mansion.  Most entomologists feel this beetle is a subspecies of the very common potato pest, the Colorado Potato beetle.  It has been speculated that a shipment of Mr. Potato Head toys was somehow mixed with a shipment of GMO modified sweet California Russet Potato’s.  The beetles needing a new food source found the hollow, interior of the Mr. Potato head toy to their liking.  Inedible plastics from the toy have been incorporated into the exoskeleton of the beetle.

Lawn Ornament Beetle (Prionus phaenicopterus)

Today the lawn ornament beetle is considered rare.  This insect’s population exploded in the mid- 1900’s when lawn ornaments, particularly pink flamingos were popular.  This Cerambycid was named P. phaenicopterus after the flamingo genus Phaenicopterus in recognition of its strong association with plastic pink flamingos.  Beetle populations have steadily declined as the pink flamingos have decreased in popularity.  There is hope this species may rebound with the increase in other plastic yard items such as lawn chairs and big wheels.

Styrofoam Beetle (Zopherus styrofoamensis)

A common denizen of landfills of the mid-western U.S.,  Z. styrofoamensis is considered a scavenger preferring party garbage, plastic and styrofoam plates and cups.  The white coloration is variable.  Some specimens have only a few small white patches whereas others are nearly all white.  In rare instances the white exoskeleton expands so much that it takes the shape of a packing peanuts.  This explains why this species was overlooked for so long.  Scientists performing landfill research were unaware this species was present due to its exact mimicry of the packing material so often discarded in today’s dumps.   Recent research has shown the white coloration can be directly correlated to the amount of styrofoam eaten.

G.I. Joe Bug (Powella shellensis)

A common denizen of battlefields and army bases around the world.  This dung beetle is known to lay its eggs inside empty bullet shells and then pack it with dung.  Inside the bullet shell, larvae are protected from being crushed by the heaviest of military equipment.  One is likely to find this species any place guns are fired.  Adults have four extremely sensitive, orange and yellow sound sensors on the elytra.  At the sound of a rifle shot, adults fly from miles away towards the sound.  Hundreds of this beetle species can be found, after an army platoon has taken target practice for the day.  The first male to arrive at a bullet shell, quickly rolls it as far away from the noise as possible.  Females are attracted to males that stridulate a sound something like “Ready, Aim, Fire”.

Goodyear Beetle (Ackron firestonei)

This is the first known, genetically enhanced species developed to combat one of the worlds growing refuse problems, tires.  Essentially scientists were able to cross a common scarab beetle with a Mexican jumping bean.  The combination produced a new species capable of consuming rubber.  Scientists quickly released thousands of these beetles into the ever growing, piles of old and used tires found in today’s junkyards.  The tire decomposition program was deemed a complete success.  As so often happens, however, when all the tires in landfills and dumps were consumed, the beetles switched to tires still in use.  There has been a rash of flat tires causing millions in damage.  At its worst, the Goodyear Beetle can consume all four wheels and the spare in less than a week.

Pokemon’s Delight (Picachu lightningae)

This species of beetle is only attracted to flashes of colorful lights such as at fireworks displays and Pokemon reruns.  In flight, the body absorbs the flashes of color and retransmits them, often in technicolor.  Some of the latest fireworks displays have been enhanced by releasing thousands of this beetle prior to the show.  Similar flashes have been observed if a beetle lands on a television screen during a Pokemon show.  The same flashes that cause epileptic seizures in some people, cause this beetle to buzz the national anthem of Mexico.

As with other insects, the species described above are easy to collect if you know how.  Searching museum specimens, one quickly realizes that the only people collecting these insects were all under 12 (as was I when I collected each species).  If you want to collect these beetles, the best opportunities will come if you take along a child.  Children seem to be the only ones who have the imagination to find these beetles.

This is an opportunity to point out that today’s children are being denied the chance to enjoy the outdoors and learn about the wonderful creatures that live there.  For the most part, our education system no longer devotes the time to teach about the plants and animals that occupy our planet.  Even at home, children now spend their free time playing video games and watching TV instead of being outdoors.  Few kids get the chance to walk on a dirt path in the woods or hold any living creature in the palm of their hand.

This is where you, the reader of this blog can make a difference.  You can give our next generation the chance to enjoy the wonders from the creatures that live all around us.  The next time you go out in the field to collect insects, take a kid with you.  Volunteer at a local library, school or park.  All these places cannot exist without volunteers and you have a lot to offer.  It is amazing how much kids will learn about the world around them given the chance.  The surprise in how much you learn in return from them!

Copyright © Richard S. Thoma 2010

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Revision of the Formicidae of North America

Formica meganigra guarding a nest entrance.

I recently came across this ant in the southeastern Missouri Ozarks sitting in a hole in the trunk of a standing dead black oak (Quercus velutinus) tree, apparently guarding the entrance to its nest. This big black ant is frequently associated with dead wood; however, this is the first time I’ve noticed one guarding the entrance to its nest. Other workers coming back to the nest were greeted by this individual by a quick rubbing of antennae and then allowed to pass. The close approach of my camera apparently was not very welcome by the ant, who responded by showing off his *her* impressive choppers.

In trying to determine the species name for this ant, it became clear to me that myrmecologists have made things far more complicated than they really need to be. When I was a kid, ant identification was easy – there were black ants and red ants, and within those two main guilds some were big, some were not so big, and some were really small.  Peter Yeeles alluded to this traditional classification in a recent comment at Fall to Climb, which the Geek herself later modified to recognize ants that were neither black nor red.  In that classification, this is clearly a big black ant; however, the myrmecologists have unnecessarily split this species up into multiple genera and species based on inconsequential characters such as punctures on the head, clypeal notches, hairy scapes, etc.  I propose to bring a measure of sanity back to ant identification in North America with a revised key to the family (below).  It is based on the traditional classification but also recognizes the introduction in recent years of an alien species that stings and has colonized a large part of the southern United States (we didn’t have those when I was a kid).  In offering this simplified classification, it is my hope that school children across the country – naturally curious about ants and other insects – will no longer have their budding interest squashed by the ponderous, complex ant identification system that has become so fashionable in recent years.

Photo Details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens on Canon 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/14, MT-24EX flash 1/8 power w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.

Revised Key to Formicidae of North America

.
1 Color black . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
1′ Color not black . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
2 (1) Enormous. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica meganigra (big black ant)
2′ Not enormous. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
3 (2′) Regular size . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica nigra (black ant)
3′ Tiny. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica micronigra (little black ant)
4 (1′) Color red. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
4′ Color yellow . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
5 (4) Can sting. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Solenopsis invicta (fire ant)
5′ Can’t sting. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica rubra (red ant)
6 (4′) Regular size. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica flava (yellow ant)
6′ Tiny . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica microflava (little yellow ant)

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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